In Depth

London slaves: why slavery exists in the UK today

Case of women kept captive in London for 30 years is not the only instance of slavery in the UK

THE Home Secretary is among those to have expressed their shock at the case of three women kept in captivity for 30 years at an address in south London. It emerged yesterday that the women, one of whom had been confined in the house her whole life, had endured "horrific conditions" and have been left "extremely traumatised" by their ordeal. A married couple, aged 67, have been arrested. But this is certainly not the first case of modern day slavery... 

How big is the problem?

There are said to be more people in slavery today than at any time in human history. The number is thought to be 29.8 million, the equivalent to more than half the population of England and more than double the total number of people believed to have been taken from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. According to the Global Slavery Index 2013, India has the highest estimated number of people in modern slavery, around 14 million. This is four times as many as China, which comes in second, followed by Pakistan.

How does the UK compare?

Out of 162 countries, the UK came 124th on the list, with an estimated 4,600 people enslaved. In a second list that takes into account the overall population of each country, the United Kingdom – along with Ireland and Iceland – had the lowest prevalence of modern slavery. However, the 4,600 figure is seen by some as conservative as there is no official system in the country for measuring the number. Last year, the UK Human Trafficking Centre received 1,186 referrals of potential victims of human trafficking, compared with 946 in 2011. But it is impossible to know how many cases go unreported.

What are these people being made to do?

Primarily originating from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, victims of modern slavery in the UK are forced into sex work, domestic servitude, agriculture, construction, food processing, benefit fraud, and coerced criminality. Some also work in nail salons and food services. In one case, highlighted in a report by the Centre of Social Justice, an independent think tank, a UK-born schoolgirl was driven to a flat and raped by 90 men in one weekend after a small group of young men gained her trust with flattery and treats.

Have there been any other recent cases?

Just last month an 84-year-old man from Salford, Greater Manchester was sent to jail for 13 years after keeping a young deaf and mute girl in his basement as a sex slave. The girl was "spirited" from her home in Pakistan at the age of 10 and sent to his home, where she was forced to carry out domestic chores and work, such as packing football shirts to be sold on market stalls. She was also repeatedly raped. The man's wife, 68, was sentenced to five years in jail for her part in trafficking.

What are the challenges in tackling slavery?

Most forms of modern slavery are criminalised in the UK but the relevant provisions are scattered throughout different laws. The crime is also dealt with by several government departments, local government agencies and a wide range of non-government organisations, leading to an uncertainty over which agencies should be tackling the problem. Ministers are planning new legislation to simplify the law on slavery and make it easier to bring prosecutions – it is set to be introduced before spring next year.

What more can be done?

Anti-slavery campaigners want to see better training for frontline police officers and the appointment of an independent commissioner for modern slavery. A new anti-slavery act should be introduced, says the Centre of Social Justice, and more information needs to be shared between government and non-government bodies. "There is an urgent need to improve the strategic leadership in the UK to combat modern slavery," it has said. "There is nobody who is leading the fight."

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