The 25th March represents the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. A key part of this International Day is not only to remember those who were subject to the 16th-19th century transatlantic slave trade, but also to raise awareness around the dangers of racism in a modern context. There has been significant public discussion around ethnicity and racism in recent months, and as a criminologist with an interest in researching the notion of ‘modern slavery’, there is a great deal of overlap between these issues.
For example, earlier this week, the Home Secretary, like many of her predecessors going back to at least the early 2000s, stated that the UK asylum system is ‘broken’ and is determined to ‘fix’ it by introducing reforms to the process. Simply put, the aim is to make it harder for migrants who enter the UK via irregular routes to claim asylum. Such policy announcements are likely influenced, at least in part, by reports of undocumented migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats to claim asylum. The intention is to make the system ‘fairer’ and crack down on ‘serious organised criminal gangs’ who are involved in transporting migrants. These proposals are controversial, because restrictive immigration legislation does not address the underlying conditions that make such a migration journey necessary or desirable, and tends to make migrants more vulnerable to exploitation, either before, during, or after they enter the country. In addition, these changes will affect some of the world’s most vulnerable people who originate from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan, and Syria.
For those of us who research themes related to modern slavery, there is a tendency in public discussion to adopt an overly simplistic narrative of ‘victims, villains, and rescuers’ in line with the above notion of serious organised criminality. In other words, malicious or ‘evil’ human traffickers take advantage of ‘innocent’ victims in order to recruit, transport, and exploit them, whereby if detected, the state intervenes to save victims. Such a discourse has arguably helped to bring the issue of modern slavery into the public eye and is easy to understand. However, portraying the state as a neutral or benign actor in tackling modern slavery overlooks the role that it plays in fostering conditions to help exploitation thrive, and overlooks the role of other actors such as legitimate organisations.
Very few (if any) public figures would argue against the need to disrupt ‘serious organised criminal gangs’ to protect victims of human trafficking and detect perpetrators. This crime control agenda is convenient for governments to pursue, since they can be seen to ‘do something’ about the problem, and can simultaneously claim the moral high ground by championing legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act 2015. While involvement of the criminal justice system in tackling modern slavery is necessary and helpful in many cases, it also diverts attention from structural factors that are not always obvious at first sight.
Therefore, once we move beyond this simplistic notion of ‘victims, villains, and rescuers’ often associated with the crime control agenda, we can see that factors such as immigration policy, labour market regulation, the welfare system, and resources allocated to regulatory bodies, all have a part to play in explaining modern slavery. For example, the lack of accountability for companies who fail to produce a transparency statement under the terms of the Modern Slavery Act may encourage exploitation to thrive in their supply chains. We have already considered the latest change to UK immigration policy that is based on deterrence, rather than other root causes such as ‘push and pull’ or ‘supply and demand’ factors. Structural issues such as how to properly regulate businesses, develop a more humane immigration system, and safeguard the rights of migrants, are highly controversial when compared to arguments centred on the need to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice. However, they provide more nuanced explanations for how and why modern slavery thrives in contemporary settings, not just at the individual level, but in the context of businesses, markets, and political-economic processes.
Perhaps one of the ways to remember the multitudes of people subject to historic transatlantic slavery is to consider modern ‘crime control’ practices that, either by design or unwittingly, contribute to systemic problems of racism and exploitation that primarily affect the most vulnerable people in our society.