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Two centuries have passed since the British House of Commons passed legislation to make slave trade illegal, but sadly the reality in the UK is that slavery is very much still thriving in pockets of communities. 

As difficult to talk about as it is, the grim reality is that there was an estimated 10,000 – 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK during 2013, according to Home Office research released at the end of 2014. That’s an alarming figure in itself, but the very fact that it’s an estimate that varies by 3,000 victims hints at just how difficult it is to detect the crimes, let alone prosecute. 

Yet young people are being persistently abused and sexually exploited for profit and vulnerable men are tricked into long hours of hard labour before being locked away. Women are forced into prostitution and domestic workers are being imprisoned and made to work all hours for little or no pay. 

It is hoped that the introduction of the Modern Slavery Bill – the first of its kind in Europe – will ensure tough penalties are in place alongside vital protective measures and support for victims. 

It’s difficult though – many of these victims, especially those that are more vulnerable, might not even realise they are victims in the first place. And this has been recognised; Home Secretary Theresa May has been clear that introducing new legislation is only part of the answer. For the new legislation to take full effect, many government organisations and voluntary groups will need to find new ways of tackling slavery, although the National Crime Agency (NCA) will need to be very specific. There will need to be a determined and focused law enforcement response with a much greater awareness amongst frontline professionals with coordinated international activity.
 
At a national level, a lot of work is already underway. A new Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner is being established to work closely with all law enforcement agencies across the UK. There’s also a renewed focus by the government through the NCA on stepping up its international response to modern slavery. This will identify priority countries from which significant numbers of victims are trafficked to the UK. 

In many ways the victims of slavery are unique in the sense that tragically they have often experienced a number of different types of abuse, exploitation, poverty as well as poor health. This makes them particularly vulnerable and less inclined to speak out. 

Of course, the new legislation is positive in the sense that it is an entirely new initiative, but is it going to tackle slavery head-on? The Modern Slavery Bill brings together current offences on trafficking and slavery, introduces tougher sentences, and creates an independent anti-slavery commissioner. However, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as much of a focus on exactly how the victims will be protected, which will be fundamental if they are going to come forward. There needs to be a lot more information on how the victims will be afforded anonymity, and what measures will be put in place to stop them from returning to a life of slavery once they return to their home countries. 

Not only this, public awareness and understanding of modern slavery in the UK is low. A lot more proactive work needs to be undertaken. UK businesses also need to be more aware of how to identify victims and be confident that they are not working with companies overseas that are using either forced or trafficked labour.
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