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 Trafficking for Criminal Exploitation: Scale and Scope of The Problem 

Internationally, one in five victims of human trafficking are children. In Moldova, Bulgaria and Albania children have been more likely to be victims of trafficking for labour, begging, and criminal activities than sexual exploitation.  
Over time, countries such as Romania have seen an increase in children trafficked for begging and criminal activities (Surtess, 2005). In poorer regions and sub-regions, such as Africa and Greater Mekong, children account for the majority of trafficked people (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime - UNODC, 2015). 

Journal Article: The UK's Statutory Defence for Victims of Modern Slavery and its Narrow Understanding of Victimhood  

Heys, A. (2023). The UK’s Statutory Defence for Victims of Modern Slavery and its Narrow Understanding of Victimhood. The Journal of Criminal Law, 0(0) 


The Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings stipulates a ‘non-punishment principle’ which provides for the possibility of not imposing penalties on victims for crimes they were compelled to commit. This paper investigates the UK's iteration of this principle: the statutory defence provided by section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act. Drawing on extant literature and relevant case law, this paper investigates current understandings of the statutory defence and the insights these provide into broader understandings of criminal exploitation. It demonstrates that while practitioners understand the processes of the legislation surrounding the defence, they are less knowledgeable about the nuances of modern slavery which therefore impacts the use and effectiveness of the defence. This paper challenges the basis upon which criminal law is applied, and its analysis makes an original contribution to recognising how misunderstandings of criminal exploitation can affect fairness in the criminal justice system. 

Prevalence of Criminal Exploitation: 

During 2016 to 2018, criminal exploitation was the least reported type of exploitation in the UK, making up 3% of reported exploitation of adults and children. Research by the NGO Hestia, suggests that this estimate may not capture its true scale. 
Between 2009 and 2018, a total of 4,491 adults and children were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for criminal exploitation. However, in NRM referral data, criminal exploitation is recorded as a sub-category of forced labour. During that same period no sub-category was filled in 2,671 cases of forced labour. 
According to the National Slavery Operations Database, between December 2016 and July 2019, there has been a steady increase in cases of criminal exploitation. It now accounts for more than a quarter of all exploitation uncovered during police operations, up from 6% three years ago. All types of criminal exploitation uncovered have been increasing, with the greatest rise noted in cases of county lines exploitation. 

Research by Dr Alicia Heys, University of Hull:  The Legal Enforcement of Modern Slavery Phase 1: Modern Slavery Act (UK) 2015 - A Review of Section 45 

This research set out to review the impact of some areas of legislation to fight human trafficking and modern slavery abuse. Phase 1 of this research focused on Section 45, the statutory defence for those compelled to commit a crime though their experience of modern slavery. 
Funded by the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre (see left), the research produced a wide range of findings and recommendations to improve the use and understanding of Section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act.  
Dr Alicia Heys is is a Lecturer in Modern Slavery at the Wilberforce Institute where she researches issues of policy, agency and representation. She has recently published a monograph with Oxford university Press on the relationship between conflict and modern slavery with in their Clarendon Series. 
Alicia is a research fellow for the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre where she leads a workstream looking at the legal enforcement of modern slavery. 
Rescue and Response pan London County Lines service: 
This project put in place a comprehensive programme of work to better understand, target and respond to county lines. It received £3 million of funding to deliver for three years, from July 2018 to March 2021. In addition to providing support to young people exploited by county lines – delivered by St Giles Trust, Abianda and Safer London - each year the project carried out a strategic assessment of county lines activity linked to London. MOPAC co-commissioned the project alongside Brent, Lewisham, Islington and Tower Hamlets Councils. 

Trafficking of Children: 

The numbers of children that have been trafficked for the purposes of criminal exploitation have not always been very clear. Criminal exploitation has not always been clearly identified within Modern Slavery Statistics. In 2012, the UK Human Trafficking Centre's (UKHTC) baseline assessment identified the most common types of criminal exploitation in Great Britain have been in cannabis cultivation and petty street crime (Anti-Slavery International, 2014). 
The numbers of children that have been trafficked for the purposes of criminal exploitation have not always been very clear. Criminal exploitation has not always been clearly identified within Modern Slavery Statistics. In 2012, the UK Human Trafficking Centre's (UKHTC) baseline assessment identified the most common types of criminal exploitation in Great Britain have been in cannabis cultivation and petty street crime (Anti-Slavery International, 2014). 
2255 “potential victims of trafficking” were identified in the UKHTC Baseline Assessment. Of this number of people, 549 (24%) were children and the age of 99 (5%) of potential victims was unknown. 
Of these potential victims, 362 (16%) were identified as being trafficked for the purposes of criminal exploitation, including benefit fraud. 323 (66%) of potential victims were male, 85 (21%) were female and the gender of 45 (13%) of potential victims was unknown. 209 (58%) of them were adults and children accounted for 132 (36%) of the potential victims. The age of 21 (6%) of victims was not known. 
Of the 362 potential victims who reported having been criminally exploited, 58% (209 potential victims) stated they had been subjected to benefit or financial exploitation. Of these, 138 (66%) were Polish adults. The next most prevalent country of origin of potential victims exploited in this way was Slovakia with 36 (10%), 33 (92%) of whom were children. 
Cannabis cultivation was the next most prevalent subtype followed by theft. A range of other criminal exploitation types included begging, selling counterfeit DVDs, and smuggling cigarettes. Of those potential victims trafficked for cannabis cultivation, 56 (81%) were children. 
In 2013, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) received 1746 referrals of potential victims and an 89% increase in adults trafficked for forced labour (including criminal exploitation) was identified. 123 of the people exploited under the category of 'labour' were children but unfortunately, whilst the category includes criminal exploitation, it does not differentiate how many children were criminally exploited as opposed to exploited for other forms of labour. 


These figures have risen Since that time. In 2017 There were 2118 suspected Child trafficking Victims reported to the UK Authorities. this accounted for nearly 41% of the total number of potential victims and constituted a 66% increase from the previous year. 
British children made up the biggest proportion of cases referred to the UK authorities with county lines thought to be responsible for a massive spike in numbers recorded in 2016. 
In 2019, 10,627 people were identified as potential victims of Modern Slavery in the UK and referred into the National Referral Mechanism; 43% of them were minors. 
Until October 2019, the NRM incorporated anyone who was a victim of criminal exploitation within the category of labour exploitation. This means that those identified as victims of labour exploitation may have endured issues such as forced begging, cannabis farming, shoplifting, benefit fraud, or ‘County Lines’. In October 2019 this changed, and criminal exploitation was set as its own category, making it easier to identify the forms of exploitation suffered by victims. Prior to October 2019, the type of exploitation most common amongst both adults and children was labour exploitation. From October 2019 to the end of the calendar year, labour exploitation continued to be the most common form of exploitation experienced by adults, while minors were most commonly victims of criminal exploitation. 

Trafficking of Adults: 

Amongst the most trusted sources for understanding the global situation is the research by the International Labour Organization (ILO). 
According to the latest report on forced labour by the ILO, an estimated 40.3 million victims are trapped in modern-day slavery. 
Of these: 
24.9 million were exploited for labour. 
15.4 million were in forced marriage. 
There are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world. 
71% of trafficking victims around the world are women and girls, and 29% are men and boys. 
30.2 million victims (75%) are aged 18 or older, with the number of children under the age of 18 estimated at 10.1 million (25%). 
37% victims of trafficking in forced marriage were children. 
21% victims of sexual exploitation were children. 

Common Types of Forced Criminality Involving Adult Victims: 

Forced Gang-Related Criminality: 
Most gang related criminal activities relate to drug networks. Victims are often children who are forced by gangs to transport drugs and money to and from urban areas to suburban areas and market and coastal towns (county lines exploitation). 
Forced Labour in Illegal Activities: 
Victims are forced to provide labour to offenders for illegal purposes. The most common example is victims forced to cultivate cannabis in private residences. 
Forced Acquisitive Crime 
Victims are forced by offenders to carry out crimes such as shoplifting and pickpocketing. 
Financial Fraud 
Victims are exploited financially; most commonly their identity documents are taken and used to claim benefits. This type often occurs alongside other types of abuse. 
Forced Sham Marriages: 
Victims are exploited for their status as EU citizens by being forced to marry the exploiters to give them an immigration advantage. Offenders are traffickers and exploiters. Traffickers bring victims into the country, confine them at a site controlled by the traffickers for up to several weeks, and then sell victims and their documents to the exploiter in a one‑off transaction. Victims are often sexually exploited by both traffickers and exploiters. Exploiters are likely to be aware that victims have been trafficked. 

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Scale of the Problem in Cannabis Cultivation: 

According to Anti-Slavery International, this is the most prevalent form of child trafficking in the UK and the NRM consistently identifies Vietnam as the most common source country. Of the victims of exploitation for cannabis cultivation identified as originating from Vietnam (which accounted for 96% of the sample), 81% were children (SOC Strategic Analysis Team, 2014). 
Although there is evidence that production of cannabis is shifting from Vietnamese organised crime groups to White British and Albanian gangs, the children that are trafficked for this purpose are still mostly from Vietnam (Brotherton & Waters). It should be noted that these figures only concern children that have been trafficked for the purposes of Cannabis Cultivation and does not incorporate children and young people involved in other drug-related crimes or non-drug related crimes as a result of exploitation by gangs. 

Scale of the Problem in Street Crime and Begging: 

This type of criminal exploitation of children has involved children from within the UK and children trafficked into the UK from abroad. These children most commonly come from central and Eastern Europe, particularly Roma children from Romania and Hungary. This form of trafficking and exploitation was highlighted as a significant threat as a result of Operation Golf, a UK and Romanian joint investigation tackling Romanian organised crime and child trafficking. In this case over 1000 mostly Roma children were trafficked for forced labour and sexual exploitation. The exploitation that took place in the UK was largely street crime and begging. Golf found that one child made to work in the UK could earn up to £11000 in a year. 
According to Anti-slavery International (2014), the trafficking of Roma nationals for the purposes of criminal exploitation, is still happening on a large scale. Between January 2011 and December 2013, 3318 Foreign National Children were arrested for theft offences in the UK. 28% came from Romania, with the next highest numbers of children coming from Poland (10.8%), Slovakia (7.5%), the Czech Republic (6.4%) and Lithuania (6%). 

Other Forms of Criminality: 

Trafficking for multiple purposes seems to be an increasing trend (Brotherton & Waters) e.g. production of counterfeit goods: ECPAT UK suggests that children are being forced to produce DVDs with Chinese nationals being most often the victims within the London area (Anti-Slavery International, 2014) 
Children involved in drug related crimes including transporting drugs and weapons has emerged as a particular issue within the “county lines” phenomenon (National Crime Agency, 2015, 2017 and 2018). 
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