Operation Radium was launched by police in Cambridgeshire last week, aiming to tackle the growing problem of human trafficking. Here, ANDREW GILBERT, a district councillor for St Neots Eynesbury, and law lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, w

Andrew Gilbert

Operation Radium was launched by police in Cambridgeshire last week, aiming to tackle the growing problem of human trafficking. Here, ANDREW GILBERT, a district councillor for St Neots Eynesbury, and law lecturer at Anglia Ruskin

University, Cambridge, who researched extensively in the area of human trafficking, takes a closer look at what is happening in the UK.

I RECENTLY passed through Stansted Airport on the way back from my summer holiday and, even though I had read about them, I was still shocked to see a human trafficking awareness poster in the customs hall.

I recalled that last year a number of newspapers carried the story of women being sold in 'slave auctions' outside a coffee shop in Gatwick Airport. I hope I never fail to feel shocked that human trafficking is taking place in my own country.

Two hundred years since the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807, the UK is faced with the challenge of how to tackle a modern form of slavery. People trafficking is now a global problem that touches the lives of millions of adults and children, and yet it now reaches many towns and cities in the UK. It is fitting in the year of commemoration that last week Cambridgeshire police launched a crackdown on trafficking in the region.

* What is human trafficking?

Trafficking is essentially the movement of human beings by means of threat, force or deception for the purpose of exploitation. It differs from people smuggling, which is usually limited to delivering a person to the country of their wish to enter, at which point the relationship ends.

By contrast, the will of trafficking victims is controlled (often by force, threats or fraud) by the trafficker. It is rare for victims to be kidnapped - most travel 'willingly' on false promises of work in bars and restaurants.

However, the victims often desire to escape hardship and poverty at home. And, when they arrive in countries such as the UK, traffickers often take the victim's passport and force them into prostitution.

They are also told there is no point going to the police as they are corrupt - a threat that can seem very real to people from certain countries.

The trafficking takes place across many international borders with sending countries tending to be poorer nations in the southern hemisphere, south-east Asia, or the former communist countries of east and central Europe. Receiving countries are usually prosperous, western nations.

* How many victims are there?

No one really knows the true extent. Figures often quoted include the United Nations' estimates of 2.4million victims worldwide and a revenue for traffickers of $7billion each year. A Home Office study in 2000 put the annual number of victims of sex trafficking in the country at 1,400.

The problem is that, because it is an underground activity, it cannot be measured in the usual way. However, in the UK, there is more of an accurate picture being built and it appears that progress is being made to catch the culprits and rescue their victims. Accurate data is important, but its absence should not hinder the fight against trafficking.

* What does the law say?

Sex trafficking has been a separate offence in English law only since 2002. Trafficking for non-sexual offences (such as domestic labour) was made an offence in 2004. All offences carry a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, and the courts, so far, have been handing down long sentences.

However, the latest figures show the number of prosecutions is small - just 12 convictions in 2005.

* What is the UK doing to combat it?

Enforcing the new law has been a key part of the UK's response. Operation Pentameter was the first nationwide anti-trafficking initiative, which was in February 2006.

During the three months of the operation, police forces visited 515 premises and charged 134 people with trafficking or related offences. They also rescued 188 women - 84 were victims of trafficking.

Most victims were aged between 18 and 25, but some were aged between 14 and 17.

Due to the relatively small number of premises visited (about 10 per cent), the police estimate that thousands more victims remain to be found.

And, contrary to the stereotype, most victims were not smuggled into the UK in the back of a lorry, but entered openly though airports, ports, coach and railway stations.

Following Operation Pentameter, the UK set up Europe's first dedicated human trafficking centre (www.ukhtc.org) in October 2006 to coordinate efforts.

The Government also used the 200th anniversary to launch its action plan on human trafficking which aims to reduced demand for the services of victims, target perpetrators, and protect victims.

Human trafficking involves some of the worst possible outrages of human dignity and yet Cambridgeshire police are finding it taking place in our communities. Progress is clearly being made, but much more remains to be done.

Abolitionists such as William Wilberforce and Cambridgeshire's own Thomas Clarkson never lost sense of how shocking slavery was, and it drove them on to complete their task. We should embody the same spirit as we face a similar challenge in a different time.