It is hard to describe the Slave Trade Abolition Bill 1807 as a Labour victory, given that it predates the party by a century. Still, this does not deter Tony Blair or Gordon Brown from staking their claim to it. ‘The reactionaries told us that to abolish slavery was an impossible cause,’ the Chancellor recently declared to Labour members. Abolition was a great victory against ‘Tory money’, said the Prime Minister. On the eve of the bicentennial year of William Wilberforce’s legislation, both men are preparing to take a vicarious (if wholly undeserved) bow.
Set aside the fact that Wilberforce was a Tory MP. Messrs Blair and Brown make a deeper error in presuming that slavery has been banished from Britain. It has come back — and on their watch. It now involves mainly Slavic or Asian woman, rather than African men. The slaves of 21st-century Britain work in bordellos rather than fields, and are bought and sold in airports rather than a Caribbean market place. The price is £8,000 a head rather than £200. And the trade has acquired a new name: human trafficking.
If you define a slave as someone effectively ‘owned’ by a master, then the United Nations calculates that there are 11 million slaves today, more than at any point in human history. The trade thrives wherever immigration controls are lax. So just as London has become a centre for the global economy, Britain’s porous borders have made the city a world capital for the 21st-century slave trade.
There is now more than enough harrowing testimony from the slave trade’s victims to grasp how this deplorable business works. Victims are offered jobs in Britain and told they can repay the transport costs when they start work. They fly into London and, on arrival, they are often told to apply for asylum, simply because the bureaucracy will keep them here for at least a year. They then find that their debt is between £5,000 and £15,000 — and that the job they were promised has not materialised. Instead, they are given work as prostitutes or as the most menial labourers, with all the pay going to their slave-masters.
This system is described as ‘repayment’, but it is no more than a modern version of indentured service. The wretched victims are told that their lives, or those of their family at home, are at stake unless they repay. Some young men sell kidneys to London’s thriving black market in organ transplants. This has happened easily in Britain because the human traffickers have found life so congenial in the vast illegal immigrant underworld, whose population is put at 500,000 by internal government estimates. These are people we only see when they die, like the cockle-pickers washed up on the shores of Morecambe Bay or the 58 Chinese found suffocated in a cargo van.
Slowly, the Home Office is waking up to this grotesque new phenomenon in Britain’s criminal underworld. In 1997, British-born prostitutes outnumbered their immigrant counterparts by four to one. Now, according to the police, this ratio has been reversed. In 2001, the Home Office said it knew of just 142 victims of human trafficking. I have learned that it is now preparing to publish new research setting the figure at 4,000 — and that is only for 2003. Ministers can only guess what today’s figure might be.
As it grows in confidence, this trade is also becoming more blatant. In the summer, the Crown Prosecution Service revealed that brothel-owners had been gathering outside a coffee shop in Gatwick Airport and openly bidding for women who made it through immigration. This is a spectacle that Wilberforce and the Clapham evangelists would have recognised instantly: the slave auction, updated for the 21st century.
Nor is human trafficking restricted to the capital. Two years ago Xhevahir Pisha, an Albanian, was imprisoned for buying a Lithuanian teenager for £3,500 and sending her to work in a Coventry bordello before selling her on. In a recent raid in Kent, police swooped on some 300 brothels and detained two dozen women suspected of being trafficked. The raid was a snapshot of the globalised slave trade: it included 14 Chinese, five Thais, a Ukrainian and a Malaysian.
Yet rather than use the bicentenary to apply Wilberforce’s morality to today’s Britain, the Prime Minister makes no linkage at all: quite the opposite, in fact. In his ‘apology’ for the slave trade six weeks ago, he declared that the bicentenary gives us a chance ‘to express our deep sorrow that it could ever have happened and rejoice at the better times we live in today’. It seems extraordinary that he should be rejoicing at a time when the mass slave trade has returned to these shores.
All this presents an opportunity for the Conservatives. The bicentenary will focus much attention on Wilberforce’s life next year — including a Hollywood film (Amazing Grace) and a book (by William Hague). David Davis, the shadow home secretary, is planning a series of interventions that will link Britain’s shameful growth as a human trafficking centre to government failings on border control. Executed properly, this could be a deeply damaging critique. While a campaign against illegal immigration can be portrayed as xenophobic, a campaign against human trafficking is harder to smear.
John Reid, the Home Secretary, is expecting the Tory attack — but his department is ill-equipped to defend him. A human trafficking ‘action plan’ is being prepared, which will serve only to draw attention to the inaction of the last decade. New laws are being considered. But as Britain demonstrated two centuries ago, it is not enough to outlaw the slave trade: it needs to be forcibly extinguished. It was the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, as much as Wilberforce, which ended the transatlantic slave trade. Mr Reid must rely on an Immigration and Nationality Directorate which is, by his own admission, ‘not fit for purpose’.
As Wilberforce wrote, ‘There is something shocking in the idea of our unfortunate fellow creatures in captivity and exile, exposed to public view and sold like a herd of cattle.’ This is precisely the evil which can be viewed from a Starbucks at Gatwick Airport in 2007. So while Labour celebrates the achievements of a Tory MP, the Conservatives can mark the bicentenary by making a devastating point: that it is today’s slave trade, not that of 1807, which the Prime Minister should be apologising for.