Economic pressures and increasingly hostile immigration policies mean the most vulnerable are more at risk of being trafficked than ever. This Anti-Slavery Week, the Christian community must renew their commitment to standing up for the least and the lost, says Ben Ryan


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This week is Anti-Slavery Week; the annual awareness campaign about the blight of modern slavery and human trafficking. This year, there are higher stakes than ever, with a combination of economic and social factors make it a period of heightened risk for those vulnerable to trafficking and slavery.

According to the Global Slavery Index, the UK has around 122,000 potential victims of slavery. Numbers of such size can be hard to grasp intellectually – but this is equivalent to slightly more than the population of Gloucester currently living in slavery here in the UK.

Christian groups have long been at the forefront of confronting slavery

That the number is lower than the previous survey in 2018 (which estimated 136,000) is a testament to the efforts of the police, the impact of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act and the work of the charity sector in intervening years. This coming year, however, is going to be a serious test of all the progress made. A perfect storm of economic and social challenges is set to try the resilience of the UK’s approach to combating slavery.

Money talks

The first challenge is the difficult economic context. Inflation and the cost-of-living crisis continue to bite. This makes for tough choices. It is relatively easy to prioritise ethical consumer choices when times are easy, but when things are hard, it is tempting not think about why one car wash is so much cheaper than another. This applies equally to companies, who may push ethical considerations to the bottom of the pile and not query the status and conditions of their temporary workforce, or scrutinise their supply chains too closely.

Before the current economic crisis, exploitation was already commonplace in many industries, including agriculture, hospitality, beauty and construction. Those vulnerabilities will be exposed further in the prolonged economic downturn.

Social isolation

The challenges will be exacerbated by a second challenge, which is a social one. Victims of trafficking are often brought to the UK without a valid visa or right to work. They may arrive by small boat or by truck. Other victims of slavery may overstay a valid visa, whether knowingly or otherwise, or have their passports taken from them by their abuser.

A significant portion will be considered illegal migrants at a time of enflamed tensions around the status of refugees. Crackdowns on illegal migration are one of the five key government pledges, and have underpinned a significant proportion of the current government’s legislative agenda (notably the Illegal Migration Act, passed into law this year).

The UK has around 122,000 potential victims of slavery

The result of this is twofold. Firstly, victims of trafficking and slavery are demonised and face hostility. This isolates them, making it harder for them to identify themselves to the authorities or seek support. Secondly, on a policy level, victims who do identify themselves risk being caught in a web of increasingly aggressive border enforcement policies, including indefinite detention, destitution and the possibility of removal to the place from which they were trafficked in the first place - or to a third country such as Rwanda to which they have no ties.

Provisions of the Illegal Migration Act could see all modern slavery support denied to anyone who arrived in the country illegally, regardless of whether that arrival was voluntary or forced.

Lighting a way

Christian groups have long been at the forefront of confronting slavery. This year, as we mark Anti-Slavery Week, there is a need for them to step up again to counter both those difficult contextual factors.

In face of the economic challenges, we need Christians to play a genuinely prophetic and ethical role as consumers and employees; holding to a higher ethical standard than expediency might demand, and recognising that the treatment of those who supply goods and services is a non-negotiable commitment.

In the face of the social context, we need Christians to embody the most fundamental commitment to love their neighbour and to uphold the human dignity of those that society might have come to despise.

This year is going to be a significant challenge for organisations like mine that work to confront modern slavery. We need the renewed energy, love and campaigning of the Christian community to offset the difficult context.