July 30 has been designated by the UN as an international awareness raising day against human trafficking and modern day slavery.
In the first three months of 2016, almost 900 suspected slavery victims were referred to the UK Human Trafficking Centre having reported being exploited for forced labour, prostitution or domestic servitude.
90 of those were from the West Midlands region… with West Midlands Police referring more cases (30) to the national scheme than any other police force.
Modern day slavery takes the form of traffickers promising attractive salaries and a prosperous new life abroad – but for most people lured to these shores they find the reality much different.
DC Michelle Ohren is a specially trained detective working on a major West Midlands Police trafficking and slavery operation that′s helping free men, women and children from the shackles of suspected ‘gang-masters’.
Is modern day slavery a big issue in the West Midlands?
If we look at the statistics alone, last year the West Midlands region put around 240 suspected slavery victims into the UK Human Trafficking Centre′s National Referral Mechanism (NRM). Some of those would have been referred by local authorities or charities but 79 cases were submitted by West Midlands Police.
We are currently the largest police contributor to the NRM. Whether that means trafficking is a bigger problem here than other areas is a moot point. We are one of the most proactive police forces when it comes to tackling modern day slavery, work closely with partner agencies to identify and support victims, and have worked on a training programme to ensure officers understand the issue and potential signs someone has been trafficked.
In the past, reports of groups of eastern European men coming and going from a property may have been wrongly labelled as an anti-social behaviour issue when, in reality, trafficking could be the root problem.
What is the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and how does it work?
Anyone suspected of being victims of modern day slavery are offered the opportunity to enter the NRM where they are cared for by a charity like the Salvation Army and provided with a 45-day period of “recovery and reflection” in a safe house in another part of the country away from the clutches of traffickers.
During that time an investigation will be launched to determine whether the case is genuine and if there is evidence to suggest they are victims.
Where we believe offences have been committed we′ll push for prosecutions. But even if the evidence isn′t there, or victims don′t want to press charges, we can still help by getting them repatriated back to their home country or directing them to support services here if they have a legal right to stay.
What investigations are you involved with?
The biggest ongoing case is the investigation into a suspected organised trafficking gang from Poland that is believed to have brought tens of people from the continent for forced labour in the Black Country.
They are arriving in the UK on lorries or coaches legally from Poland – not being smuggled into the country – but are coming here under false pretences. It′s the classic case of being promised well paid jobs and a good life – but find themselves living in cramped, squalid conditions and working long hours for very little pay.
We are currently looking at claims made by 68 people who say they′ve been exploited… the three latest having reported to Hope for Justice just earlier this week.
Who are Hope for Justice?
West Midlands Police works closely with Hope for Justice, an anti-slavery charity that launched a base in the region in May 2014. It provides important community intelligence to police and acts to build victims′ trust and confidence in the authorities.
We regularly come up against victims who′ve been brainwashed by traffickers into thinking police will prosecute them. They may have misplaced loyalty or ‘debt bondage’ to traffickers, or a general fear of reprisals should they speak out against their treatment.
As a result it′s really important we work closely with charities as people often feel more comfortable approaching organisations like this in the first instance to disclose offences – and we can gradually work with them once their confidence has been gained.
It′s crucial for us to gain the trust and co-operation of victims… at a very basic level we protect victims and get them to a place of safety away from the influence of traffickers.
What kind of victims are you encountering?
The general victim profile in the case I′ve mentioned are Polish men between the ages of 17 and mid-50s but there have been some Polish women who have arrived with their partners.
They are often vulnerable in so far as they are homeless, have learning difficulties or some other dependency. We have had some victims who have come to the UK in the hope of being able to finance urgently needed operations or medication for their children or other family members. They are struggling to obtain work in Poland – and even if they do it tends to be low paid, that′s why they are so easily exploited by the traffickers because the life they are selling them in the UK appears irresistible.
Looking at the quarterly UK stats for the first three months of the year, 895 cases were referred to the NRM of which Albanians topped the list (183) followed by Vietnamese nationals.
We find people of South East Asian heritage are trafficked here to work in cannabis factories – again working in squalid, dangerous conditions where electricity sources have been bypassed and properties modified.
Is one of the problems that victims sometimes don′t consider themselves ‘victims’?
Yes, that′s a big challenge.
People are offered the opportunity to come to the UK, they are told their travel to the UK will be covered and they will not have to pay this back. On arrival they will be provided with legitimate work, a house to live in and transport to and from work.
They will likely work within the agricultural or waste recycling sectors and earn £300 to £400 per week. All they have to do is attend work and give the traffickers half of their wages. For them it is seen as a chance not to miss as even half of their wages is often more than they could earn in their own country – and of course they will no longer be homeless, but have a roof over their head.
The reality is that they will be forced to open numerous bank accounts that the gang masters will control for money laundering and fraud, including benefits scams, while loans are often taken out in their name and of course never repaid.
They often find that traffickers will, over time, take more and more of their wages by claiming UK tax has increased or that their rent has gone up. The traffickers will come up with any excuse to pay them less money… we′ve had people say they′ve been paid as little as £20 even though the agency employing them will have paid the trafficker £300-plus.
They can very quickly end up in a very desperate position – that′s when some will try to break free but we suspect many others are too scared to try and seek help.
What are some of the worst conditions you′ve seen suspected victims enduring?
They will often be living in appalling conditions with anything up to 12 or so people in one house sharing mattresses with no bedding, no hot water and no electricity or working toilets.
Some of the properties we′ve uncovered have exposed wires dangling from the walls or ceilings and no smoke alarms… they are tragedies waiting to happen and we will also work with local authorities and fire colleagues to punish rogue landlords.
We tend to find ‘Alpha Males’ running the homes who will come down hard on any dissenters and report any issues or perceived troublemakers to the gang masters.
For you personally Michelle, what′s the psychological, emotional impact of working in an area like this?
This is a really difficult one to answer.
It is of course upsetting to see people living in such horrible conditions and that some have come to accept that for them this is life. They feel there′s no escape and have to live in fear and squalor because who is there to help them, who will see them, who will listen to them?
But in a way that′s what makes the role so fulfilling, to safeguard these people and show them they can have a better life. And of course going after the cruel traffickers who are abusing vulnerable people in such an appalling way to line their own pockets.
Thankfully with the help of charities and increased awareness within the police, partner agencies and communities, the message is getting out there that we can help.
What success have you had in tackling modern day slavery in the West Midlands?
We are making inroads all the time. If you look at the operation I mentioned earlier, we have arrested 14 people on suspicion of human trafficking and slavery offences and they remain on police bail while our enquiries continue.
And we′ve recently secured interim Slavery & Trafficking Risk Orders against them which come with conditions banning them from opening bank accounts for people, arranging work, and transporting anyone to and from work - all the types of activity you would expect from trafficking offenders.
These are new civil orders introduced in the Modern Day Slavery Act 2015…I believe before these nine were secured there had only been one other such order imposed in the UK so it′s ground-breaking stuff.
The orders help us keep a tighter grip on suspects as conditions also force them to register certain change in circumstances, like address changes, with the police.
I′m also working with employment agencies to raise awareness, help staff better recognise victims and encourage reporting to charities or police, and to tighten up recruitment and vetting processes to identify anyone who may be acting as a front for traffickers.
How important is community information in tackling slavery… what part can members of the public play in protecting victims?
Community Intelligence is absolutely vital to tackling slavery. The overwhelming message is to trust your intuition…and if anything appears suspicious in your neighbourhood then please report it.
There are some tell-tale signs that could indicate someone is being abused for modern slavery. It could be that large groups of people, especially non-UK nationals, are being collected from a property early in the morning and returned late at night and that they are rarely seen outside the house.
We listen to our communities and respond to their concerns…human trafficking could be happening on your doorstep so please don′t ignore the signs.
Hope for Justice - http://hopeforjustice.org/ - can be contacted on 0845 519 7402, or to report suspicions of forced labour or human trafficking call West Midlands Police in confidence on the 101 number.
There is also a Modern Slavery Hotline - 0800 012 1700 - that people can call to provide information.
DC Michelle Ohren has worked with West Midlands Police for nearly 20 years, including as a detective, a Family Liaison Officer, a senior interviewer and been involved in several high profile murder enquiries.