In July 2015, against the backdrop of an escalating migrant crisis and an, as yet unsympathetic, governmental approach, we invited sixth formers from across Greater London to come and discuss modern day Human Trafficking, law and policy.
This was the 2nd summer school Big Voice London has run to date, following last year’s successful project on Fracking. The aim was to engage young people with the legal debate around the Modern Slavery Bill and to encourage them to voice their opinions as we taught them how to navigate the more technical aspects of law.
This article doesn’t intend to delve too deeply into what the students discussed, discovered or designed in terms of policy; the report is online for all who are interested to read. It does, however, intend to discuss the mind set of those young people and the way in which the decisions were reached.
There were two main aspects to what the students considered Human Trafficking to involve; at a basic level it was humans vs. humans. On one side, there were the traffickers and the smugglers (in the students new look at legislation these would fall under the same heading) and on the other, the migrants and refugees. Both of which they considered to be one and the same: people.
I say this because they were not using statistics, replacing names with numbers. Instead they considered one example of each, on a human level, and escalated that upwards to attempt to contemplate the numbers we were discussing.
Secondly, they looked long term. It always amazes me how forward thinking these students are when it comes to solutions. It isn’t about making small concessions that change things now; but big changes that may dramatically reduce problems over time.
Initially, they discussed education. Educate those in countries that experience high levels of trafficking and help them avoid falling prey to those who seek to exploit them. Rehabilitate and educate those who made it to the UK but who cannot seek refugee status. Transform holding centres into schools, create ambassadors, create a global network of prevention tactics that support each and every home country to do the best by their victims.
This was, in part, a response to the question of “what if we can’t let everyone in, what if we can’t afford it?” A question which often splits the room; the scaremongering of the local newspapers giving our students a slightly warped view of refugees and migrants. There was a unanimous desire to find a solution though and education seemed immediately the best investment. We are often told that education is the cure for poverty, for hunger, for peace.
There was still the boundary of poverty to conquer in the origins of trafficking. To begin, they looked at the causes of the financial appeal of trafficking; prostitution, organs etc. What can be done to prevent that appeal? A heated debate sparked ideas of harsher penalties versus legalisation. Finance escalates when the risk is greater, remove the risk and it plummets. Bringing the spotlight back to people however, some pointed out that making prostitution so accessible put the individuals at a greater risk of harm. The human aspect, again, taking prime position.
It is interesting to reflect on the main contentious issues surrounding the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and note that the most heavily debated were the financial matters; the threshold above which companies will have to report their supply chains. It is hard not to feel cynical about the timing of the bill and its grand gesture to abolish slavery worldwide through Britain’s high market stakes; especially when discussing those same markets with young passionate people. In the context of this article however I draw the comparison merely as a self-indulgent aside.
The fascinating debate continued as exploratory questions about human nature found their way to the floor. Some called for the death penalty for all convicted smugglers or traffickers. It is a topic that often rears its head when discussing tackling major crimes. Majorally though, the students denounced the death penalty long term, finding it a quick fix solution to a larger problem, and instead focused on causation. Why were these people doing this? What made them do heinous things to their fellow human beings? Were they desperate or evil?
The students understood pretty quickly that this was an area full of grey. The law currently reflecting only one view on how to tackle that. Looking at the legal framework offered a fixed lense through which people’s lives are analysed and attempts are made to make them fit a tick box.
The reality of any crime with any perpetrator and any victim is that the law doesn’t always reflect the human element. It is easy to forget how much law can stop us connecting with the people it is made for. Sometimes it’s important though to take that step back and take time to reconsider, as these students did, the people whose lives are behind the newspaper headlines.
At the start of September, a Syrian child was found face down on the beach in Turkey, dead. This image changed the way the refugee crisis was depicted by the UK media giants. The “de-humanisation” of the individuals became frowned upon and the political parties began to change their stance.
Two months before this, our young people were talking about the crisis in a human way. Their idea of smuggling in many ways mirrored their disgust in trafficking, so much so that they considered it a trafficking crime. Although beliefs differed massively across the group, their collective attitude was ahead of its time. I hope that they won’t lose that as they grow to become influential members of society. I can’t help but readily anticipate the Modern Slavery Act of 2025…
By Emily Lanham, paralegal in a London chambers. In her spare time she is a Director of the youth project Big Voice London.