Modern slavery is endemic across the UK, and Brexit could make things worse. The UK Government must secure an agreement on security cooperation with the EU to prevent this dire situation from escalating, argues Anthony Steen.

Slavery's victims need us to get Brexit right and stop the trafficking gangs When I started the Human Trafficking Foundation in 2010 around 700 possible victims of human trafficking were found each year.  By 2019 this had rocketed to over 10,000.

Better training means our police, immigration officers and social workers are able to spot more possible victims and we now understand that British people are victims of modern slavery too.  But the scandal of modern slavery in the UK is likely to increase unless Government ministers find a way of maintaining security links with our EU counterparts and provide safe, fair and legal ways for people to come to the UK.

So far, the Government has not been able to get an agreement about security cooperation, but this is one area where a 'no deal' simply cannot be an option.  The EU are our nearest neighbours and organised criminal gangs are not bound by borders.  Without a security deal UK police and Border Force will lose access to vital databases and intelligence collected by Europol and the ability to work together on Joint Investigation Teams through Eurojust.

These databases and collaborations are key tools for tracking down and bringing to justice members of organised crime groups that traffic people into modern slavery in the UK.  Police officers told our research team that evidence gathering on cases of cross border modern slavery will be slower, more difficult and more expensive without this European cooperation.  At a time when conviction rates for modern slavery in this country are persistently low this is deeply worrying.

We simply cannot allow the number of victims tricked manipulated and bullied into modern slavery in Britain's fields, nail bars, factories or brothels to continue growing.  The Government must make it a priority to get an agreement so this important collaboration can continue.

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The Government also needs to strengthen our immigration checks at the border.  Without meaningful checks when people arrive and leave the country, it is too easy for traffickers to bring victims into the country unnoticed and unquestioned.  Instead of taking back control of our borders and strengthening these checks the Government is allowing the status quo to continue.

Visitors from the EU are still going to be able to come to the UK without a visa and go through the automatic passport gates. This will mean that many more victims will continue to come into the country without speaking to a Border Force officer who might have been able to intervene and get them to safety.  The Government had promised a form of pre-travel approval process an 'Electronic Travel Authorisation' which would allow visitors to at least have some kind of check before they arrive in the UK – but this is delayed, unlikely to be in operation until late 2021 or 2022.

Ministers must wake up to this threat and find ways of maintaining links with EU law enforcement agencies and plugging gaps in our border controls,  which are wide open to exploitation by trafficking gangs.

But policing and border control will not be enough on its own to stop the increase in people being exploited in modern slavery.  We also need to prevent people being tricked into modern slavery in the first place.  We need to offer them safe, fair and legal routes to come to the UK so they do not fall into the hands of traffickers.  Many victims of modern slavery are exploited after being offered a job in the UK – but this turns out to be a false promise and they end up in appalling conditions, with little or no pay and huge debts to pay back to those who recruited them.

The ban on work visas for low wage jobs is going to mean a big shortage of workers especially in the short term. Our research shows that employers are not ready for the rule change and that training British workers will take time – if British workers even want to take some of these lowest paid jobs at all.  This means there is going to be a gap while employers catch up and British workers or new technology is found.  A gap that traffickers will fill with increasing numbers of modern slavery victims.

Taking back control of our borders and treating foreign workers of all nationalities after Brexit makes sense.  But it does not need to exclude low paid workers, and it does not need to lead to Britain becoming a haven for modern slavery in low paid industries.  Without urgent action though -that is where we are headed.

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