UK records huge jump in human trafficking referrals: Report

The number of potential human trafficking victims in the U.K. has increased by almost 10-fold in less than a decade, and the problem could be exacerbated by Brexit, according to a new report.

The number of possible victims in the U.K. jumped to 10,613 in 2020 from 1,182 in 2012, the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) said on Wednesday in its latest evaluation report on the U.K.’s implementation of the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings said

Many of those potential victims were children, with the report noting the number of minors referred to the U.K.’s National Referral Mechanism had jumped to 4,946 in 2020, from 1,279 in 2016. GRETA attributed the increase mostly to the “growth in trafficking for the purpose of forced criminality,” citing “county lines” gangs, which smuggle drugs into rural areas and smaller towns.

In a grim milestone, during the second quarter of 2020, there were more referrals of children than adults for the first time ever, the report noted. Of the possible victims referred in 2019, 68 percent were male, 32 percent female, one was transgender and the gender of 11 was unknown.

According to the report, the fallout from Brexit and proposed changes to the U.K.’s immigration policy could create greater risks for victims.

Under London’s proposed immigration reforms, unveiled by Home Secretary Priti Patel in March, migrants who successfully claim asylum in Britain but arrive through irregular means or travel through other safe countries to get to the U.K. will lose their automatic right to settle in Britain and could face being deported. The policies could make undocumented trafficking victims “reluctant to approach the authorities for fear of being prosecuted for immigration-related offences,” the report said. This could prevent authorities from identifying victims and providing them with assistance, or investigating potential trafficking. The report noted that the United Nations Refugee Agency had already taken issue with the immigration reforms.

The report also noted Brexit was a point of concern, because it “might result in the UK being cut off from European security and criminal justice co-operation mechanism and result in loss of access to Europol, the European Investigation Order and the European Arrest Warrant.”

GRETA called on the U.K. to take further steps to improve the identification of victims of trafficking and the application of the non-punishment provision, which protects victims from being convicted for offenses they were compelled to commit.

The European Court of Human Rights earlier this year ordered the U.K. to compensate two Vietnamese victims of human trafficking who were convicted as minors for drug-related offenses after they were forced to work on cannabis farms.

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