Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Challenges and Expectations of Safeguarding and Anti-Trafficking Initiatives at the UK Border



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Guest post by Jennifer K. Lynch and Katerina Hadjimatheou. Jennifer is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Research in Primary and Community Care at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. She has a background in interdisciplinary research across the fields of health, social policy, and human trafficking. Over the past couple of years, she has worked in partnership with Katerina Hadjimatheou taking an interdisciplinary approach to analysing anti-trafficking initiatives at the UK border, including carrying out empirical work with UK Border Force professionals. Katerina is a Research Fellow with the Interdisciplinary Ethics Research Group, Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. She publishes philosophical and criminological articles on the ethics of policing, security technologies, trafficking and border control. In relation to the latter, she also produced a report on the ethics of border control for the EU Border agency FRONTEX and consulted on their drafting of a code of ethics.

Borders are presented as sites of unique opportunity- 'frontlines'- for anti-trafficking interventions. Border Force Officers in the UK now receive training to identify and protect victims of trafficking before they ‘disappear into exploitation’. But very few victims are picked up at the border. Over a few days in 2015, as part of a European funded project, we spoke to members of a specialised Safeguarding and Anti-trafficking unit within the Border Force at Heathrow airport. They described the challenges they face in fulfilling this relatively new, humanitarian aspect to their role. They also provided insights into the culture of the Border Force, an organisation which has received scant scholarly attention compared with the police. The officers we spoke to told us about the dilemmas they face. They also described frustration with seemingly contradictory demands of anti-trafficking policy and immigration control. In a series of papers, we argue that these reflect deeper contradictions in British anti-trafficking policy. In this blog post we present some key findings of this project. Some of these have already been published. Others we are still working through. But first, we give a brief background to anti-trafficking at the UK border.

The weight of expectations on anti-trafficking work at the UK border

In recent years, global public attention has focused on the so-called migration crisis. This has put the need to address human trafficking in the spotlight. Governments and agencies worldwide have eagerly stepped up to promote their anti-trafficking strategies (European Commission, 2012; European Migration Network, 2014; Frontex, 2012; International Organization for Migration, 2005).

In the UK, the government has been keen to demonstrate its commitment to this cause. The current Prime Minister, Theresa May, has made the fight against modern slavery a defining aspect of her political legacy, as the following quote illustrates:

This is the great human rights issue of our time, and as Prime Minister I am determined that we will make it a national and international mission to rid our world of this barbaric evil. Just as it was Britain that took an historic stand to ban slavery two centuries ago, so Britain will once again lead the way in defeating modern slavery and preserving the freedoms and values that have defined our country for generations.

In 2014 she appointed the first Anti-Slavery Commissioner and in 2015 she launched the first Modern Slavery Act.

UK Border Force (UKBF) has been given a key role in this anti-slavery drive. This includes intercepting traffickers, preventing trafficking and providing support and protection to victims. Indeed, UKBF is one of only 3 UK agencies with a core cross-cutting anti-slavery role. One of their key duties is to identify potential victims of trafficking. Once identified, they refer them for government support through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The most recent reporting of this activity shows that just 5% of all referrals to the NRM come via UKBF.

We were interested in exploring the apparent disconnect between policy expectations and outcomes. And we wanted to hear from Border Force Officers how they felt about their new, humanitarian duties. How did they reconcile anti-trafficking with immigration control? And what challenges did they face in their day to day efforts to identify and help victims? We outline 3 key findings from these conversations below.

SAT teams create a distinct subculture within the Border Force

All Border Officers have Safeguarding and Anti-Trafficking (SAT) training. But we spoke to members of a specialist SAT team, who had volunteered for extra training and duties. These include doing ‘SAT only’ shifts: walking behind the passport gates to observe the behaviour of incoming passengers. They also work with external agencies on trafficking cases and deal one-to-one with victims.

We identified an emerging SAT subculture amongst the members of this team. It revolves around the emotional, complex, and specialised aspects of this work, for which only a dedicated few volunteer.

The officers we spoke to reported sharing a deep personal and professional commitment to SAT work. For them, SAT work is a humanitarian duty, as we have argued elsewhere. They described the SAT team as a distinctly moral community, rather than merely a professional one: 'it's not work... it's just human', said one. They spoke about their work in terms of ‘protecting’ people from harm – even ‘saving’ them from exploitation. They contrasted themselves with other officers, who were less inclined to engage in anything but immigration control.

Border Force SAT teams are acting in isolation

While our interviewees spoke about how rewarding SAT work could be, they were also vocal about their frustrations. One source of frustration was the restrictions on their powers to gather evidence on potential trafficking cases. Border Force Officers are authorised to search luggage and access any physical material found, however personal or intimate. But electronic devices are off-limits. Our interviewees saw this not only as a serious limitation to their ability to gather evidence, but also infuriatingly inconsistent. Some of them used their personal phones to look people up on social media and online. Others thought they weren't allowed to do this. Ad-hoc practice and uncertainty made their work harder.

These issues are symptomatic of a lack of consistent and formalised communication between Border Force and other relevant agencies. Our interviewees complained of insufficient feedback on potential anti-trafficking cases in which they had been involved. They often had no idea what became of victims. There were no clear processes for the exchange of information or intelligence. Officers were not able to monitor the effectiveness of their interventions. It was difficult to understand broader trends (We explore these issues further in a paper in the Anti-Trafficking Review).

The fallacy of empowering victims through anti-trafficking work

Anti-trafficking interventions are supposed to help victims take back control of their lives. But our work suggests this restoration of autonomy is harder to achieve than expected. Like all anti-trafficking first responders, Border Force Officers are required to obtain consent from potential victims before referring them to assistance via the National Referral Mechanism. On the face of it, this requirement is sound. It seems obvious that the last thing first responders should be doing is forcing victims to do anything. To do so would appear merely to compound the violation of autonomy they have already suffered. Asking victims to consent, it might seem, is the first step in a process designed to restore their damaged autonomy and give them back control over their lives.

Yet the officers we spoke to were deeply sceptical about the consent requirement. One even described lobbying to the ‘highest levels’ for it to be scrapped. They said that the vast majority of those they identify as victims refuse to provide such consent. They said that getting consent was one of the main obstacles to helping victims.

Why might people refuse to consent? One reason is that giving consent means accepting the label of a ‘victim of trafficking’. Many people are understandably reluctant to self-identify themselves as victims. Making the offer of help dependent on self-identification as a victim sits uncomfortably with the aim of restoring dignity and autonomy. Even if people are inclined to consent, in practice Border Force Officers themselves do not know and therefore cannot tell victims what is likely to happen to them if they do. This makes it hard to obtain consent that is sufficiently informed to be meaningful. Finally, making assistance dependent on consent fails to recognize the pressures those trafficked are often under. These include threats to themselves and/or their families. Or they may relate to conditions of poverty. There may well be good reason why people prefer to take the risk of exploitation (and worse), than to return to the situation they left.

Is the consent requirement an honest but perhaps misguided attempt to restore victim autonomy? Or is it just another example of an anti-trafficking strategy that is superficial, driven more by a desire to tick boxes and appear proactive than to genuinely empower victims? These questions highlight deeper concerns about the UK’s modern slavery strategy, concerns we hope to continue to address in our work.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Lynch, J. K. and Hadjimatheou, K. (2017) Challenges and Expectations of Safeguarding and Anti-Trafficking Initiatives at the UK Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/07/challenges-and (Accessed [date])

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