Czechs among top of UK's most trafficked
Victims often silent on exploitation in factories, food-processing plants
Posted: November 7, 2012
Answering an employment advertisement to work in the United Kingdom placed in a national newspaper seems an innocent enough action. Yet for some Czechs, this simple response to a seemingly legitimate job has led to a life of servitude by falling victim to the crime of human trafficking.
According to a UK government publication released last month, the Czech Republic is among the top 10 countries of origin for victims, and in Scotland it was No. 2. The report documented cases that included sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, forced labor, organ trafficking and criminal exploitation.
The document emphasizes the multifaceted nature of the crime. Identified as a priority country, it was found 45 percent of people exploited in the food-processing industry were Czech, and in factory work 25 percent. Some 27 million individuals are being trafficked at any given time, a total greater than the whole number trafficked during the 350 years of the slave trade.
Referring to the list of potential victims, including those not registered with the authorities, out of the total 2,077 potential human trafficking victims, 60 were Czech nationals in the industrial sector, and 39 were sex workers. Only 31 of these individuals joined, or wanted to join, the UK National Referral Mechanism (NRM) that provides support for victims.
The journey from the Czech Republic varies, but frequently the move is voluntary, according to Czech NGO La Strada. Director Irena Ferčiková Konečná emphasized trafficking victims are often lured by a deceptively friendly guise.
"Most people are not forced by physical violence or oppression; there are more sophisticated means of coercion," she said. "People are promised a better future, and only when they arrive are they abused."
The director of the homeless shelter Naděje Prague, Petra Lakatošová, spoke of how her clients are often deceived by fellow countrymen.
"Clients have recounted how someone promised them work and accommodation in the UK, but when they arrived, their documents were taken from them and the clients had to work only for food and accommodation, for example, for 15 hours a day."
Liam Vernon, deputy head of the UK Human Trafficking Centre, said there is an inherent danger in this type of exploitation, in which victims may not realize this is not what they signed up for until it is often too late.
"If people do not perceive they are victims, it is extremely difficult for the authorities or individuals to spot them in their journey to the UK."
The United Kingdom is a particularly desirable destination, said Rut Dvořáková from Czech NGO Diakonie ČCE-SCPS, because there are "good conditions for immigrants. There are very good social services, and foreigners can take money from the UK."
A crossroads for Europe
Mike Stannett of the Salvation Army in Prague also said the Czech Republic "acts as a crossroads between Central and Eastern Europe, so a lot of people access the UK from here."
In the United Kingdom, human trafficking is regarded as an "atrocious crime" by Home Office Minister Mark Harper; in 2011 alone, 946 individuals were referred to the NRM.
Because of the secretive nature of the trafficking industry, these numbers are likely to be just the "tip of the iceberg," said Ferčiková Konečná. Fear and feelings of hopelessness make it particularly hard for victims to accept their duped status and to actively seek help.
For many exploited workers, this is compounded by the fact that their newfound situation may still be better than what they left behind.
"For many people from Central and Eastern Europe, the horrendous conditions are still better than the ones at home, a sentiment that is exploited by the traffickers," Vernon said. He added that, for forced labor workers, the "conditions can be little or no wage, money taken for alleged costs for food and accommodation, long hours and bonded to a debt of thousands of euros." Frequently for sex workers, there is also "an added aura of violence."
The Salvation Army UK, to which the NRM refers victims, aims with its services to provide "whatever is needed" to those found to be victims of human trafficking.
"We make an individual assessment, and then will provide relevant help, whether it be physical, medical, psychological or practical such as obtaining new documents," said Anne Read, the Salvation Army UK's anti-trafficking response coordinator.
Here in the Czech Republic, there has been a direct initiative for prevention through the collaboration of NGOs, the Interior Ministry and the British Embassy, along with the parallel authorities in the United Kingdom. This involves "identifying vulnerable groups at risk of trafficking into the UK to warn them of the potential danger," said Jan Šimral of the British Embassy. "We also facilitate cooperation between British and Czech law enforcement agencies to help disrupt trafficking gangs."
Dvořáková also said a priority should be made of raising awareness through field work and of educating people here on conditions and expectations. "We don't want to stop people going to the UK; our first aim is that they know their rights and can be safe by themselves."
This is particularly important for socially excluded groups, such as the Roma community. It is estimated 200 Roma people travel to the United Kingdom for work each year. There have also been stories of traffickers recruiting directly from homeless shelters to maximize their abuse.
Unscrupulous employment agencies pose a particular danger, as seen in the ongoing fallout of the forest workers' case. Back in 2009, more than 1,500 workers were lured by criminal employment agencies to work on state-owned forest land in the Czech Republic, facing violent treatment and exploitation and highlighting holes in the legal system.
NGO representatives stressed deficits in the legal system resulting in failure to prosecute; it has taken eight years to bring the first case of labor trafficking to court, despite it being part of the definition of human trafficking in the criminal code since 2004.
Ferčiková Konečná said the definition of human trafficking in the Czech Republic is problematic as, unlike in the United Kingdom, forced labor is a subcategory rather than being a separate entry. "Relatively speaking, prosecution is easier in the UK because here in the Czech Republic we have to prove both forced labor, and that they were trafficked," she says.
The definition is not the only problem, she continued, but also the "implementation," as while other cases such as the forest workers could set a precedent, "judges can completely ignore previous cases."
Dvořáková describes it even more explicitly: "The problem is with law systems, not with the police."
Yet, there is reason to hope. The networking and sharing of information among countries is making inroads to creating a much more hostile environment for traffickers, while continuing to support the victims.
On a basic level, Vernon's simple mantra alone would often help prevent someone becoming a victim: "If something is too good to be true, it most probably is."
Laura Stevens can be reached at
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