Last updated: 31.08.17

Could Brexit hamper the UK's efforts to tackle human trafficking?

Although more than a year has passed since the June 2016 referendum that saw the people of the UK vote to take the country out of the European Union, the wide-ranging repercussions of that decision are still yet to become clear.

As the British government continues to conduct talks with its European counterparts over what form Brexit will take, experts in many sectors are still debating how the UK's planned departure from the union in March 2019 will affect their fields - and in many cases, the conclusions they are drawing are not wholly positive.

For safeguarding professionals in particular, significant apprehension continues to swirl around the prospect of Brexit due to its potential to cut the UK off from international efforts to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking - an outcome that would have serious consequences both in Britain and overseas. Although such an outcome is not set in stone, campaigners are warning that significant work will be needed to ensure any potential negative impact of Brexit on safeguarding efforts can be minimised.

Dismantling the legal safeguards

The potential risks posed by the UK's departure from the EU were recently highlighted in a report from the Independent, which revealed that charities and security experts are concerned that Brexit will have the unintended consequence of dismantling many of the key legal protections that are currently in place to prevent human trafficking.

As many as 65 policing and criminal justice measures derived directly from Brussels may be at stake as a result of Brexit, including crucial measures such as the Passenger Name Record Directive, which requires airlines to provide passenger data to aid the investigation of serious crimes.

Moreover, leaving the EU could mean that Britain loses its ties to the European law enforcement agency Europol, which could result in the breakdown of current intelligence-sharing initiatives, including shared access to European fingerprint databases.

The potential consequences

The impact that these eventualities could have on international safeguarding efforts are easy to understand. Since many of the laws currently in place to prevent human trafficking and slavery come from Europe, rather than the UK, it could become considerably more difficult for lawyers to defend victims of these crimes until replacement legislation can be brought into effect.

Additionally, since trafficking and slavery is so often a cross-border crime, the UK's non-participation in Europe-wide efforts to tackle these problems will limit the ability of authorities to do so effectively on an international level - particularly if fractious Brexit negotiations damage goodwill between Britain and the EU to the extent that even informal cooperation becomes more difficult.

Tamara Barnett of the Human Trafficking Foundation told the Independent: "Without these laws in place, it will be much harder - in some cases impossible - to seek justice on a victim's behalf, and that is obviously very worrying."

Ryan Mahan, of the campaign group Every Child Protected Against Trafficking, added: "Any moves to retreat from cross-border initiatives to stamp out abuse will impact on vulnerable children most."

Can these risks be prevented?

With National Crime Agency figures showing the number of potential trafficking victims has more than doubled from 1,745 in 2013 to 3,805 last year, it is clear that this is not an area in which the UK can afford to fall behind - particularly given the recent rise in the number of children being targeted.

As such, campaigners are adamant that the British government must do all it can to ensure that cooperation between UK authorities and their continental counterparts can continue even after Brexit - whether that means pledging a continued commitment to the protections that are currently in place, or through the creation of new laws to replace any that are at risk of becoming defunct.

A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs' Council said: "Ahead of the EU referendum, we clearly stated our need to work closely and at speed with European countries to keep people in the UK safe from threats including organised crime, child sexual abuse, cyber- attack and violent offenders. These requirements must be maintained as the UK leaves the EU."

"We are being clear on what is needed in order for us to retain our ability to share intelligence, biometrics and other data at speed, and to ensure we can continue to provide a quick, efficient and dynamic response to crime and criminals impacting the UK and its citizens."

The Home Office has since offered assurances that the government will "continue to work with all our global partners to tackle modern slavery" - but safeguarding professionals are nevertheless likely to be keeping a watchful eye over the progress of the Brexit negotiations in the coming months to see whether this pledge is backed up by actions.

Summary: Safeguarding professionals may need to prepare for a potential negative Brexit-related impact on their current efforts to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking.


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