Activists take part take part in a rally titled "Walk for Freedom" in protest against human trafficking, in Athens, Greece | Photo: EPA/Orestis Panagiotou
Activists take part take part in a rally titled "Walk for Freedom" in protest against human trafficking, in Athens, Greece | Photo: EPA/Orestis Panagiotou

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), human trafficking and ‘modern slavery’ is on the rise across the globe and taking on ‘horrific dimensions.’ But what kinds of factors make people vulnerable to being trafficked? A new report investigates.

“I thought I would get out of the slavery I was in. I thought I was a slave. My mum treated me badly, her husband worse, I was between two fires," an Albanian woman said. To get out of her situation, she accepted an Italian man's invitation to come with him to Italy. She ended up being sexually exploited. 


Her story joined many other survivors' testimonies to form part of a two-year study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the University of Bedfordshire in the UK. In the joint report “Between two fires: Understanding vulnerabilities and the support needs of people from Albania, Vietnam and Nigeria who have experienced human trafficking in the UK”, the team of researchers spoke to people in Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam and the UK in order to understand the "perfect storm" of vulnerabilities which can lead to someone being trafficked.

A screenshot of the cover of the ECPAT report on trafficked children in the UK from December 2018  Source ECPAT UK screenshot

Running away

Some people are running from bad situations at home, others are running from poverty, explains Dr. Patrick Burland, Senior Project Officer at the IOM and one of the main authors of the report. He spent months interviewing people in all four countries included in the report, namely the UK, Nigeria, Albania and Vietnam. 

“[It] is because we are poor," explains Blessing*, a Nigerian woman quoted in the report. "We don’t have anything, so that’s why I traveled." Her parents were suffering and when she met someone who said he would take her to Europe to be a nanny, she jumped at the chance. 

Like Blessing, “thousands of Nigerian women receive false promises every year,” states Florence Kim of the IOM. “If they leave their country, they are told, they will find a good job, maybe as a waitress or a hairdresser. There they can earn enough money to begin a new life. Instead, many are caught in vicious cycles of sexual exploitation and servitude.”

This is what happened to Chance* as well. She was persuaded to quit school and promised a waitressing job in Malaysia. She was told that she could earn 800 dollars per month (400,000 CFA franc). She left Nigeria with two other girls from her neighborhood. Once in Mali, the three were told that they had to work as prostitutes to pay back the money they ‘owed.’London skyline  Credit Picture-alliance

Lack of knowledge

Burland explains that people are promised sums of money they could earn. Sums, he admits, which would seem ridiculous to many living in the western world. Like being told you could earn 4000 pounds (4510 euros) a month in a nail bar as an unskilled worker. When told their ‘debts’ in relation to these sums, they calculate that they will only need to work a couple of months for the traffickers before being ‘set free.’ Burland says that many are very willing to take this risk.

“A lot of people were willing to travel with “so little knowledge about whom they were going with and where they were going.” 

This lack of knowledge also extends to the details of the journey itself. Most journeys from Vietnam towards the UK start with a flight to Russia, from where they make their way overland through Eastern Europe to Germany and then France. The journey, says Burland can take between three and eighteen months, bits done on foot, on buses, in cars. Sometimes they will be locked up for days or months at a time and often beaten. Details are hazy, says Burland, because at each stage of the journey, new people join them, others disappear. 

“Often there is a sense that some people did not survive the journey,” he adds, but again, it is difficult to corroborate accounts. What emerges though, is an organized network of traffickers who each take groups of people small steps of the way.

Activists take part in Walk for Freedom to protest against human trafficking in Berlin  Photo ReutersFBensch

Debt bondage

From both Nigeria and Vietnam, many trafficking victims were caught in a kind of debt bondage. Documents and flights to the UK are first procured by the traffickers. They are then held by voodoo curses and other rituals, or threats that their families will be hurt if they don’t cooperate. 

For Albanians, the mechanism, at least for women, can often be different. Burland explains that they are sold a fantasy of marriage and children by “lover boy recruiters.” In this sense, often no money has changed hands as that would “ruin that illusion.” Some might have even known that what they were doing was “risky” adds Burland. In many cases, however, it seemed preferable to the family situations from which they come.

“Violence and abuse is often normalized at home,” says Burland about the victims from Albania. “They had commonly experienced sexual and physical violence. So when they started relationships with young men, they had no existing experience of healthy relationships. It was easy for the ‘lover boys’ to recruit them.”

Culturally, in Vietnam there is a huge sense of duty and providing for the family, particularly among men. It was these commonly held morals and beliefs which pushed a lot of older men to become victims of trafficking to the UK. They didn’t just ‘owe’ money to the traffickers themselves, debts which they felt honor-bound to pay off; they had often mortgaged their land and their family’s land, so they owed money to official credit institutions too. The risk of being returned from the UK without having paid that money off would leave them even more vulnerable back in their home country, which kept them working in exploitative situations in the UK even when they realized that what was happening to them wasn’t right.

Illustrative photo of Save The Childrens report on the Invisible Little Slaves published on July 27 2018  Hedinn Halldorsson Save the Children

Stigma plays a huge role in trafficking

Stigma is another reason that some end up easy prey for traffickers. And the stigma of being trafficked later hampers their return to their own societies.

Ihuoma*, from Nigeria, explains that her journey to the UK started after she ran away from her family following the death of her sister because of circumcision. “I couldn’t stand it, I ran away, I started going from one village to another in order for me to still have a living,” Ihuoma explains. Burland adds that she was then easy prey for sexual exploiters and having run away, she couldn’t then go home.

Marina* from Albania explains that her family abandoned her when she fell pregnant. “For six months I lived with my boyfriend, the father of my child . . . He left without telling me and I did not know where he was. After I gave birth to my son, I did not have anywhere to stay and to live. I did not have any income.”

Many trafficked people are tried as criminals in the UK for the crimes they have committed rather than being recognized as trafficked Photo Creative Commons

Dimensions of trafficking

The victims of trafficking are difficult to quantify. The UK’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) puts the number at about 7,000 - a figure much lower than those actually being exploited think the IOM researchers. The Christian Action Research and Education charity estimates that there are about 136,000 victims of modern slavery within the UK, but not all of them have been recognized by the NRM. Many victims, instead of being recognized and offered support, are criminalized for the work they have done in exploitative situations such as working in cannabis factories or as prostitutes.

The International Labour Organization sets the figure for trafficked people and those in modern slavery worldwide at about 40.3 million. 24.9 million of those are in forced labor and about 15.4 million are in forced marriages.

More support

More work needs to be done in the UK to not only identify, but also support people who may be victims of trafficking, the IOM recommends. Many of those interviewed for the report were criminalized in the UK and then sent back to their own countries.

 Annie was trafficked in the UK since 2004 she filed her first asylum application in 2010 and she has been appealing rejection decisions since then  Photo Marianna KarakoulakiDW

Currently, identified victims receive a minimum of 45 days support in a UK safe house. Since February, victims can receive 45 days more as a ‘moving on’ period to help them reintegrate back into society. Burland thinks that is not enough. He points out that it takes on average more than 100 days to make a decision about whether or not someone is a victim of modern slavery. 

When the 45-90 day period comes to an end, people may become homeless, Burland explains. In some cases, they go back to the people who exploited them in the first place, because they are the only means of making money in the UK. For others, if they are not recognized as victims, immigration laws kick in and they can face deportation either for the work they have done or for being in the country without the correct permits.

A modern slavery bill is currently making its way through the UK’s lower house of parliament. It proposes that victims be offered 12 months of support. The bill has been stalled for several months.

*all names have been changed by the IOM