Andrew Selous: This pandemic has left more people exploited by ruthless traffickers

The Government can rightly be proud of the great strides that it has taken against modern slavery in recent years.

Since the publication of its Modern Slavery Strategy in 2014, and the subsequent Modern Slavery Act 2015, the UK Government has pioneered efforts to eradicate the worst human rights abuse of our time, both domestically and around the world. The UK is now rightly considered a leader on the global stage, and the Government is to be commended for its success in increasing international awareness and focus on the need to prevent this awful exploitation.

In my own constituency, I have seen major incidents of modern slavery with, on one occasion, the police freeing 24 slaves, 19 of whom were British and some of whom had been kept on the site for nearly 15 years.

This year, World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, on July 30th, marked a pivotal moment for the anti-trafficking and slavery movement.

The establishment of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office presents an opportunity to take stock of the good work which has been done, and consider what needs to happen next to swiftly and sustainably eradicate modern slavery.

The FCDO must, of course, do so in the context of a global community which is seeking to overcome the crisis of COVID-19 and rebuild a sense of normality.

Experts estimate that there are 40 million people around the world held in slavery. More than at any other time in history. One in four are children. Sadly, the COVID-19 crisis means that increased numbers of people are likely to suffer trafficking and exploitation. Life has become harder for many people due to financial hardship and prolonged isolation, making them more susceptible to ruthless traffickers who prey upon vulnerability. The World Bank estimates that 49 million more people will be forced into extreme poverty this year. Without urgent action, increases in violence, slavery, and other forms of brutal exploitation, could become another pandemic.

There has never been a more crucial moment to build on the powerful momentum of the Government’s action against slavery in recent years. The FCDO must make accelerating our efforts to eradicate modern slavery a priority. There are four key principles which I believe ought to form the basis of the new department’s strategy for tackling this devastating problem.

Firstly, we must bring an end to impunity. The adage that modern slavery is a low risk, high reward crime remains true in many places around the world. Whether it be a lack of resources, expertise, or political will, too often justice systems fail to hold traffickers to account, and vulnerable people are exploited without consequence.

When public justice systems are equipped to enforce anti-slavery laws, dramatic change is possible. International Justice Mission, an NGO which works alongside local authorities to build their capacity to respond to trafficking, have seen this first-hand. In cities in which they have worked in the Philippines, the number of children available for commercial sexual exploitation fell by up to 86 per cent – an astonishing result.

If the FCDO is to develop a robust anti-slavery strategy, tackling impunity and strengthening the rule of law must be at its centre. Approaches like this could see slavery stopped at source, protecting millions of people and making everyone safer.

Secondly, those who have experienced modern slavery must play a pivotal role in shaping our response. Survivors hold an expertise which most of those who develop anti-slavery laws and policies cannot begin to understand.

Across South Asia, the Released Bonded Labourers’ Association has played a pivotal role in helping workers out of exploitation. Earlier this year, I read of 13 families who had been released from forced labour in a brick kiln, thanks to the RBLA’s advocacy which began in June 2018. The families, 42 people including 13 children, had been forced to work for up to five years to repay false debts. Many of them were injured or malnourished, having had no access to good food or medical care. Several of the women were pregnant, and the children worked alongside the adults turning the baking bricks in the hot sun.

Survivors are uniquely placed to understand the circumstances which led to their abuse. We must listen to them if we are stop others falling victim to the same brutal exploitation.

Thirdly, we must see a joined-up approach across government. Modern slavery requires a multifaceted response both at home and around the world. The FCDO will have an essential role to play, but its approach must be aligned with other government departments.

Take, for example, the need to address exploitation in business supply chains. British businesses often source and manufacture goods in communities where forced or bonded labour is widespread. The FCDO through our Embassies and High Commissions, the Department for International Trade, and the Home Office, must work together to create an environment in which business can thrive without the risk of perpetuating exploitation.

Finally, accountability and transparency are key. The British public must have confidence in the new department. The well-respected international aid network, Bond, are correct in saying that ‘aid only works well when it is accountable to parliament’. DFID was subject to close scrutiny by the International Development Select Committee, and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact helped to ensure value for money for the British taxpayer. Such scrutiny must be maintained to ensure we continually strive to be as efficient and effective as possible.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, and as the Brexit transition period comes to an end, the FCDO has a responsibility to be a powerful force for good on the world stage. There are a myriad of pressing issues requiring urgent attention, but tackling the causes of modern slavery must remain upmost in the Government’s priorities.