The Tories and human trafficking: Don’t play politics

The Tories and human trafficking: Don’t play politics

09 January 2007

The Tories and human trafficking: Don’t play politics

by Hugo Brady

The British Conservative party kicked off the New Year saying they wanted to sign Britain up to a 2005 European convention that grants rights to the victims of human trafficking. Odd that the Conservatives should suddenly develop such a concern for humanity: only a few months before they wanted to scrap UK legislation giving effect to a related European convention on human rights for all British citizens.

Both conventions are products of the Council of Europe, a 46-country assembly that promotes democracy and human rights in Europe but does not have the EU’s legal and institutional muscle. The human trafficking convention calls for better national laws to prosecute the criminal gangs that engage in this modern form of slavery, and to protect the victims. So how come Britain is not already signed up? The reason is a clause in the convention requiring signatory countries to let the victims of trafficking stay in the country for 30 days, to recover from their ordeal and decide whether they will help police prosecute offenders.

British officials worry that some immigrants will falsely claim to be the victims of traffickers (the same way some file bogus asylum claims) so they can stay in the country. They worry this will create an immigration pull factor towards Britain. The Conservatives say such fears are exaggerated. Hardly a typical Conservative stance: illegal immigration is a subject of great concern amongst core Tory voters. The Tories want their support for the convention to help convince mainstream UK voters that they are the ‘nasty party’ no longer nor against international co-operation in principle.

The Conservative party should resist any temptation to play politics with this issue. Human trafficking is a savage form of modern slavery that generates massive profits for international criminal gangs. In Europe alone, over 100,000 victims are trafficked each year, mostly to where thriving markets in sexual exploitation exist in Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. Gangs deceive, pressure or abduct their victims (mainly young girls) in their home countries and sell them on to be sexually exploited or, at best, used as slave labour abroad. The most unfortunate are raped, tortured or demeaned by various methods of disorientation such as being passed between several ‘owners’ to break their resistance to prostitution. And business is depressingly good. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal activity on the planet. A recent estimate from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that traffickers make annual profits of $7-$10 billion worldwide.

If the Tories are really serious about cracking down on this crime, they should support the more substantial work of the EU as it develops its crime-fighting role (which they oppose on instinct). In 2005, for example, Europol – the EU’s police office – helped to smash the biggest ever people-smuggling ring in the UK, led by ‘untouchable’ gang leaders Ramazan Zorlu and Ali Riza Gun. This gang smuggled tens of thousands of Turks and Iraqis into the UK. In 2006, a year later, phone tap evidence secured by Eurojust, the EU’s unit of prosecutors, from Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria, helped to put Zorla, Gun and the other big gang leader behind bars for a very long time. The Conservatives concern about the victims of trafficking is laudable. But they should have the courage and honesty to acknowledge where the real progress is made: in the EU.

Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.