Dr Gordon Macdonald: Legislate to beat the human traffickers

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Human trafficking is an abhorrent crime; it involves stripping away the human rights, dignity and freedom of a person and subjugates them to complete control by a person or gang. There are an estimated 10,000 – 13,000 victims of modern day slavery still trapped in this horrific cycle of abuse in the UK alone. Children and adults are being exploited for sex, domestic servitude, forced labour, criminal activity – and even organ harvesting.

Over the past few years the government, the media and the police have begun to get to grips with the issue: Scotland passed the The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act in 2015, which introduced a single offence for all kinds of trafficking for the first time, consolidating and strengthening our existing law. New court orders have also just come into effect which will mean the activities of convicted traffickers may be restricted when they are released from jail. However, there is much more that still needs to be done.

The Scottish Government has announced its Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy, setting out how it plans to make Scotland a hostile place for traffickers. The key thing that must be addressed off the back of this strategy is to look at things in our society which enable, facilitate and drive trafficking. Only by addressing these factors will we be able to confront the factors which are helping this atrocious crime to take place.

Human trafficking, exists because there is demand for it. Gangs, corporations and individuals that profit from trafficking human beings do it because it is lucrative and they are tailoring their activities to clients who are driving their businesses.

Data by The National Crime Agency (NCA) shows that trafficking people for sexual exploitation is one of the main reasons adults and children are bought and sold. In order to tackle this particular element of human trafficking it is vital to challenge the demand for paid sex. One of the primary ways in which countries can do this is by introducing a law which criminalises the purchase of sex. Not all people who are in the commercial sex industry have been trafficked, however, there is a strong link between the two – 62 per cent of all trafficking victims in the EU are trafficked for sexual exploitation. We cannot eliminate the sexual exploitation of victims without addressing the users. Putting the onus onto the buyer does the following things. Firstly, it recognises the vulnerability of women and girls trapped in commercial sexual exploitation, whether trafficked or not, many have not made a completely free choice to enter prostitution and they face great risks of violence and damage to their physical and mental health. Secondly, making it a criminal act to pay for sex acts as a deterrent, it will put many people off paying for sexual services.

The first country to adopt this approach was Sweden where it has been highly effective. Testimonies from countries that have adopted this law show that not only has the prostitution market been reduced but that the countries have become a more hostile place for traffickers to operate in.

Since introducing a similar law in 2016, France has seen over 900 people arrested for buying sex in the first year of the new law, with most admitting their guilt and being fined. This is compassion and justice in action. It clearly showcases that there are ways to reorientate justice systems in a short period of time and for the law to be successfully implemented. Other countries that have adopted this include Norway, Iceland, Canada and Northern Ireland. Just this year the Republic of Ireland followed Northern Ireland’s recent example of legislating to ban the purchase of sexual services. With laws in place either side of the border in Ireland there is now nowhere for perpetrators to hide from this law and it will have a crucial impact in the fight against trafficking.

With so many leading countries adopting laws which criminalise the purchase of sex, shouldn’t Scotland adopt this model also? It’s time to disrupt the business of human trafficking. By targeting customers of the sex industry with fines and potential jail time, the market decreases and becomes more of a risk for traffickers; they are then less likely to do business in countries which have these laws. If Scotland adopted a law like the above it would be putting victims of human trafficking at the heart of its legislation. When our laws are framed to protect the most vulnerable in society we can see real benefits.

We cannot ignore that human trafficking for sex exists because of the commercial sex industry. By legislating strongly in response, Scotland would give dignity back to those who have survived trafficking for sexual exploitation and give hope to those still caught up in this brutal cycle.

If you need help, or you think someone may be a victim of slavery or exploitation, call the confidential UK modern slavery helpline on 0800 555 111.

Dr Gordon Macdonald, CARE for Scotland Policy Officer