LONDON: In a British suburb in central England, police officers accustomed to burglaries and household disturbances are breaking new ground by finding ways to battle the latest crime wave – human trafficking.
Sergeant Alex Sobolewski of the West Midlands Police, who is based at Brierley Hill about 130 miles (210 km) northwest of London, said a large part of his work now concerns people trafficking, a crime barely discussed five years ago.
With an estimated 46 million people globally living in slavery, human trafficking is being taken increasingly seriously in all countries with Britain home to an estimated 13,000 slaves and authorities identifying about 3,260 people victims in 2015.
Modern slavery has become a catch-all term to describe human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, sex trafficking, forced marriage and other slave-like exploitation.
Sobolewski, who was born in Poland but moved to Britain aged six, said the West Midlands police were having to find new ways to stop traffickers exploiting vulnerable people from Poland and Romania as cheap labour.
Identifying victims was the first challenge as often these people did not realise they were being abused and then it was critical to find practical means to stop the traffickers.
“These will be perhaps people with an alcohol dependency. Certainly people unemployed. They will target homeless people, people who really don’t have great prospects in life,” Sobolewski told the Thomson Reuters Foundation while giving a tour of the area.
“They will bring these people over. And I suppose that’s why some of them don’t really see themselves as victims. They’ll see that the life over here, however hard and bad it is, it’s better than it is in Poland.”
Of the people identified as victims of modern slavery in Britain last year, 139 were Polish nationals brought over for labour exploitation with West Midlands Police currently investigating 70 claims of human trafficking from Poland.
According to Britain’s 2011 Census, more than 52,000 people from Poland were living in the West Midlands.
In the West Midlands, long an important centre of commerce and industry for Britain, Sobolewski said workers are in demand in factories of all kinds and recycling plants.
UNAWARE OF ABUSE
“Often, the employers aren’t aware that these people are being exploited,” said Sobolewski, a keen triathlete who is clearly protective and keen to help his Polish compatriots.
“Wages will get paid into a worker’s account … and somebody will come and draw that money for them and give them a cut. A cut, and usually it will be a very small cut of what they’ve earned for that week.”
Britain has taken a lead internationally in trying to crack down on human trafficking, introducing the Modern Slavery Act last year which has been hailed as a milestone for combining harsh penalties with progressive measures such as better protections for people at risk of being enslaved.
From life imprisonment for human traffickers to forcing pimps to pay compensation to their victims, Britain now has some of the world’s toughest sanctions against modern slavery.
It also requires companies to disclose what they are doing to make sure supply chains are free from slavery.
Sobolewski, who has been in the police about 14 years, said progress was being made but it was a difficult as traffickers often target the most vulnerable people who are lured with false promises of well-paid jobs.
During a recent raid on a factory his unit uncovered a large number of Polish workers but rather than see the police there to help them as victims of trafficking they thought the police were there to arrest them as part of a Brexit operation to round up foreign workers for expulsion from the country.
Detective Constable Michelle Ohren said the psychological control used by the traffickers cannot be underestimated.
“You get to a situation where you find people that really think that this is their life. They have nothing, they have to do as they are told,” said Ohren, who trains other police officers to spot the signs of human trafficking.
“They (think) they have to live in this house and they have to go to work and if they only get 10 pounds ($12) for working 60 hours that week well then that’s life and what they have to put up with.”
Police, acting on information from victims and victims’ families, are making some headway by carrying out raids on workplaces but realised they needed interpreters with them if they were to get to the bottom of what was really going on.
Sobolewski said it was important to get their trust and finds the fact that he speaks Polish is a great help.
“These people they are bringing in are really vulnerable. … and they don’t have the English language skills and they have an inherent mistrust of the police,” he said.
“So a big barrier is actually persuading them that we can offer genuine help – that their conditions don’t have to be like this and there are agencies that can support them or help them.”
Also finding ways to stop the traffickers was seen as important, using practical steps like not allowing people to hold bank cards not in their own name and not seek employment for other people.
“It’s as a result of doing that we’ve made arrests of two of our offenders for breaching those restriction orders earlier on this year. If found guilty, then they face a sentence of up to five years imprisonment,” Ohren said.
“We believe we’re the first in the country to actually have made arrests and charges for breaches of restriction orders.”
While Sobolewski and Ohren deal mainly with the Polish community and trafficking, they suspected the same issues existed in Romanian and Afghan communities in the West Midlands.
“I’m sure they have exactly the same issues as all the other established communities but perhaps it’s that we find it difficult to speak to them to find out what those issues are,” said Sobolewski.—Reuters