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  • Writer's pictureAntonia Boorman

Why Human Trafficking is not uncommon in the UK, and how to resolve it.

Updated: Dec 20, 2020



Human trafficking is defined by the OHCHR as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation” (Article 3, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, 2000).

Within my Capstone, I analysed the common misconceptions associated with human trafficking and identified how reform of immigration laws could help significantly reduce human trafficking rates. I found that immigration laws being too complex or restrictive, the lack of citizenship protection and strict borders create the demand for smuggling, which traffickers take advantage of. Reforming these laws could significantly reduce human trafficking levels as the demand for smuggling would be lowered making it harder to take advantage of migrants.

Ineffective policies often address the surface level problems, rather than tackling the root cause of the issue, meaning the surface level problem will continue to resurface as the underlying causal issues have not been addressed. Similar to a weed resurfacing, if you do not tackle the root, and instead just get rid of the surface, then the issue will reemerge. Human trafficking policy works similarly, the crux of the problem must be identified and tackled to create long-lasting systemic change.

An Iceberg Model is a systems thinking tool used to identify these underlying root causes by breaking the surface level issue into multiple levels of components that influence the problem: the events that occur on the surface level, the recurring patterns that form, the structure that the problem exists within, and the mental models that influence the issue (Systems Innovation, 2018). The iceberg model is used to illustrate how many perceived problems that exist today are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and have core underlying interconnected causal issues, similar to how an iceberg’s mass on the surface level is only 10% of the total mass (Systems Innovation, 2018). By examining each of these layers, we can understand the surface level issue more holistically.

Figure 1: Example of the Iceberg Model

Considering that human trafficking is a multifaceted issue, rather than just a linear causal problem, applying the iceberg model to analyse the situation of human trafficking is appropriate. To do so, I will be conducting a deeper analysis into the recent BBC headline “Essex lorry deaths: Man in court on human trafficking charges” (BBC News, 2019) reporting the deaths of 39 people being transported inside a lorry (BBC News, 2019). Conducting an iceberg model analysis for this case study will help to break down this headline into the events, patterns, structures, and mental models, with each level providing more insight and understanding into the multifaceted issue of human trafficking that led to the deaths of these 39 people.

Figure 2: BBC News Headline

Events Level

The Events level represents the surface level issue that is identifiable, consisting of the components observable to the general public, ie. what is shown on the news (Systems Innovation, 2018). This includes the following components reported in the Essex lorry case BBC News article, synthesised below.

Thirty-nine foreign nationals, from Vietnam, died in a lorry driven by a UK national, after coming to the UK via the Belgian port of Zeebrugge after crossing back and forth between Europe and the UK multiple times (BBC News, 2019). The thirty-nine foreign nationals, twenty-four of which were under thirty years old, were being smuggled into the UK and died from overheating in the lorry (BBC News, 2019). The driver was charged with manslaughter, conspiracy to human trafficking, immigration offences, and money laundering offences (BBC News, 2019). The victims had voluntarily paid to be smuggled, between £20,000 and £30,000 per person to smugglers (BBC News, 2019).

At the events level is the snapshot of what has happened, the deaths of 39 people due to smuggling*. This level identifies the relevant stakeholders (the driver, the 39 victims, the UK, and Vietnamese governments), and provides information of the current state of the system, what and how the deaths occurred, rather than why they occurred (which will be addressed at the structure level). The events level represents the tip of the iceberg.

*It is important to note that human trafficking is different from migrant smuggling. A person can be illegally smuggled into a country but it only consists of trafficking if the is ongoing non-consensual exploitation of the person occurring, through the forms outlined above (UNODC, 2019).

Figure 3: Map of lorry journey between the UK and EU from GPS records

Patterns Level

At the Patterns level, re-emerging patterns of behaviour, trends over time, and the recurrence of events are identified and observed (Systems Innovation, 2018). By monitoring these patterns, it allows policymakers to predict, anticipate, and prepare for future occurrences (Systems Innovation, 2018). This level builds upon the adaptability of a complex system.

The Essex lorry case is not a unique occurrence (BBC News, 2019). The following reports from the BBC have shown that multiple lorry deaths in the UK linked to smuggling have occurred within the last six years (as exemplified in the screenshot of the article below).

Figure 4: Screenshot of BBC News article “Essex lorry deaths: What we know” (BBC News, 2019)

Victims from the four cases reported in Figure 4, were all from non-EU origin countries; Vietnam, India, Afghanistan, and China. Reports from 2000 and 2014 show that many of these smuggling cases occur between the same ports, Zeebrugge, Belgium, and Tilbury, UK (BBC News, 2014). In 2014, the number of "clandestine illegal entry attempts" (BBC News, 2014, para. 32) to enter the UK rose from 11,000 to 18,000, illustrating the significance of this issue (BBC News, 2014). As the Essex lorry deaths were not an isolated incident, and that multiple similar cases have arisen throughout the years coming from the same ports, this can be considered a pattern.

At this level, the recurrence of smuggling-related deaths allows policymakers to notice and monitor this trend, noting any relevant changes or core agents in the system, ie. is the mode of transportation always lorries, then act to eliminate it. By analysing past events it can help policymakers to identify components that can be used to anticipate and reduce future occurrences, enhancing the adaptability that policymakers can take advantage of to shape the system accordingly. This can be achieved by analysing why this trend keeps reoccurring, relationships between stakeholders, and causal factors. This is conducted at the penultimate level, the structure level.

Structure Level

The Structure level depicts the interconnectedness of a complex system, examining how the multiple agents and the dynamic nature of their connections influence the patterns level. It includes the formal and informal rules of the system, including laws, societal norms, and policies (Systems Innovation, 2018). With regard to human trafficking, this level concerns the laws concerning immigration, borders, and citizenship.

Human trafficking, is illegal in the UK (Article 1, Section 2, Modern Slavery Act 2015) and can result in life imprisonment (Article 1, Section 5(1), Modern Slavery Act 2015). In my capstone, I identified three major structural aspects that influenced human trafficking; complex migration applications, laws tying visas to employers, and citizenship laws. Current legal migration is complex, political, bureaucratic, and expensive, making it difficult to pursue the regular channels of migration to get into a country. This increases the demand for people smuggling, which can increase human trafficking rates as vulnerable people are taken advantage of. For example, some people voluntarily agree to be smuggled even when they are aware that they will be exploited on arrival, as immigration laws are so strict and inflexible, that illegal and dangerous crossing is still a preferred option. Another example is how some traffickers benefit from visa laws that tie workers to the company meaning that they can exploit workers who will not report them as the victims themselves will instead be deported. These laws exist in the UK. As the last example, due to some citizenship laws, migrants are subject to the law but not entitled to it, therefore they aren’t protected from exploitation in the same way citizens are ie. through labor unions. All of which influence the increase of smuggling and human trafficking rates in the UK.

The systemic factors that influence human trafficking rates in the UK involve multiple stakeholders that can be broken down to a variety of levels:

  • Governmental level: the UK government, the Vietnamese government, the European Union.

  • Societal level: Border police (in the UK and Belgium), the UK media, and the citizens of the UK and Vietnam.

  • Individual level: the traffickers & smugglers, and the trafficking victims.

The way these agents interconnect in a network influences the high trafficking levels. For example, policymakers in the UK represent the will of UK citizens as the UK is a democratic country. The UK government makes policies regarding immigration, citizenship, and borders, which is particularly restrictive, influences the increase of demand for traffickers and smugglers from people looking to enter the UK illegally, which in this case were the thirty-nine Vietnamese victims. Border police did not identify the victims at either the UK or Belgium borders. The thirty-nine Vietnamese victims paid smugglers to get them into the UK, and may not have been aware that they would be trafficked. They want to get into the UK and were influenced by the want for a higher standard of living, which was not achievable in Vietnam, which is influenced by the Vietnamese governments’ economic and political policies. Vietnamese citizens may have heard about the opportunity of a higher standard of living by the UK media. The UK media makes UK citizens aware of human trafficking occurrences through news reports such as the BBC News article in Figure 2, which influences their political views and since the UK is democratic, has a direct effect on the political ideals of the elected government, which feeds back into policy creation. The European Union is involved here as the port where the smuggling occurred was part of the open borders of the European Union, which the UK and Belgium were member states of at the time of the occurrence, meaning that the UK complied with EU regulations regarding border policy.

At the structure level, the causes for patterns become apparent (Systems Innovation, 2018). The reasons multiple cases of smuggling via lorries keep occurring can in part be due to the strict immigration laws in the UK, identified above, yet the reasons for wanting to migrate from Vietnam to the UK are also a causal factor.

The thirty-nine victims killed in the Essex lorry case were Vietnamese nationals. Anti-Slavery International identified Vietnamese as part of the top three nationalities of human trafficking victims in the UK, estimating that around 18,000 people were being trafficked from Vietnam to the UK yearly (Anti-Slavery International, 2019). Vietnamese migrants may have generated approximately £234m annually for smugglers in Europe (United Nations, 2017).

Why leave Vietnam?

Vietnam still has a huge income disparity across the nation, with a large labor surplus (United Nations, 2017), meaning many who leave Vietnam do so seeking work and ability to send remittances back to family members (Anti-Slavery International, 2019). Poverty, hardship and limited freedoms were other reported causes for migration from Vietnam (Anti-Slavery International, 2019), as well as specific influences such as fleeing climate-change disasters like the 2016 toxic waste spillage in Ha Tinh Province that ruined farmland and fishing, which for many was their sole form of income (Anti-Slavery International, 2019).

Many of those who leave Vietnam agree to be smuggled voluntarily, even paying extremely high amounts to be smuggled, in the hopes of earning a substantially higher income in the UK (Anti-Slavery International, 2019). Those who consent to be smuggled may not realise that they have an extremely high risk of being trafficked.

Why go to the UK?

According to Dr. Tamsin Barber, a specialist in the British-Vietnamese population, the UK is the most popular destination for Vietnamese migrants due to the high possibility of securing informal work, substantially higher income prospects, and a wide network of Vietnamese in the UK who could help migrants settle (Le, 2019). Dr. Barber claims that there is no legal route for low-skilled migrants despite the high demand for them in the UK, making smuggling the only option for Vietnamese workers to get into the UK (Le, 2019).

Understanding the multiple agents involved in the system, as well as the causal factors and contributors, gives policymakers a deeper understanding of the surface level problem, which is critical to eradicating the problem. The reason behind the decisions and actions that these stakeholders make, such as why migrants risk their lives to be smuggled into the UK, can be examined further through their mental models, the ultimate level.

Mental Models Level

The Mental Models describe the beliefs, attitudes, morals, values, and assumptions of stakeholders involved in the system that shapes societal perceptions and norms (System Innovation, 2018). The mental models level creates and designs the structures that exist in a system (System Innovation, 2018), for example, the values and ideals of citizens influence the laws that exist in a democracy, as well as the moral attitudes towards policy influencing the existence of democracy in the first place. Stakeholders are often unaware of their mental models as they exist subconsciously, shaped through familial and societal influences (Systems Innovation, 2018), for example, if raised in a religious community, children will often share the morals and ideals of that religion.

Due to restrictive border control, many migrants who are denied entry to a country and desperate to migrate due to fleeing oppressive dictatorships or seeking a better quality of life through improved access to healthcare, job opportunities, education, etc, agree to be smuggled and can be targeted for trafficking due to their vulnerability. In the Essex lorry case, families have reported paying between £20,000-£30,000, the equivalent to 30 years' salary for a rural farmer in Vietnam, for their family members to be smuggled. The reasons influencing this are discussed above, yet the extent of desperation ie. giving up a 30 years salary and risking your life, exemplifies the desperation for migration. This desperation is influenced by their mental models of the UK having more opportunities and higher job prospects, which is influenced by family pressure on young people to be successful and financially supportive of their families. This increased pressure on young people to provide for their families could explain why two-thirds of the thirty-nine victims were under thirty years old (Independent, 2019).

According to Dr. Barber, Vietnamese families see smuggling as “their one opportunity to send a family member abroad to earn money” (Le, 2019, para. 27) which tied to the family-centric culture in Vietnam, put huge pressure on young people to take these risks to gain a higher income for their families. This desperation to get to Europe isn’t an anomaly either, demonstrated by the 17,480 refugees that drowned trying to get to Europe in 2014 (Leatherdale, 2019). This desperation is shaped by the perception that Europe will be able to give migrants safety and security, yet with fewer and fewer legal options to legally enter the UK since 2016, this mental model may quickly dissolve (Leatherdale, 2019). Due to the goal of not wanting to get caught, migrants are left vulnerable to being trafficked by their smugglers as they cannot report them to authorities without getting deported. This, coupled with desperation, can influence their decisions to obey smugglers even in risky situations, for example, Anti-Slavery International reported that many Vietnamese migrants were told that refrigerated lorries were the best mode to avoid detection when traveling into the UK, despite the lack of oxygen (Anti-Slavery International, 2019).

This level is also where the stigma and misconceptions that influence a societal stance on things come into play. For example, common misconceptions, societal stigma, and inaccurate media portrayals have directed the conversation away from tackling these systemic issues, and instead influenced the creation of ineffective policies to combat trafficking. For example, conflating sex work and sex trafficking as synonymous, due to taboos around sex work, has resulted in the introduction of the SESTA “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017” (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017” (S.1865, 2017) bills in the United States were introduced to reduce sex trafficking (Romano, 2018) yet solely target on banning the advertising of sex work (Ramsawakh, 2018), which has made it harder for authorities to locate sex trafficking victims (Steimle, 2019).

These misconceptions can be strengthened by the media, for example, the movie Taken (2008) portrays human trafficking as “a context-free evil, a kidnap at random that could happen to anyone, anywhere” (Mac & Smith, 2018, p. 121), which is rarely the case, as usually it is associated with the legal structures outlined above. This portrayal is problematic as it shifts the blame to ‘evil people’ rather than scrutinising the systemic policies that can be addressed. It is crucial to explicitly understand the definition of trafficking as otherwise misconceptions, such as defining trafficking as synonymous with kidnapping, can occur and redirect the conversation away from the reform of the actual root causal factors of migration, border and citizenship policy problems.

What mental model influences strict UK immigration?

The mental models that UK citizens hold on immigration are highly influential to policy, as exemplified through the Brexit referendum. According to the European Commission, immigration was the most influential concern for Brexit voters at 38%, with terrorism as second at 29% (BBC News, 2018). This influences the restrictive nature of current border control and legal immigration policies. Shifting these mental models could have significant effects on human trafficking rates as since the UK is a democracy, citizens have a significant power through voting. Therefore educating citizens on distinguishing stereotypes from reality could have a major impact.

To Conclude

Human trafficking rates in the UK continue to rise significantly yearly, with reports to the National Crime Agency increasing by 36% between 2017-2018, as seen below (Figure 5). This figure will continue to rise unless immigration laws, the conflation of terms, and the reasons for migration are tackled. Conducting an iceberg analysis provided a deeper understanding of the case study of the Essex lorry trafficking case. By locating the event, identifying it as a pattern, examining the underlying structural and systemic factors (as well as the multiple agents, laws, and interconnections) that influence the existence of the issue, and finally analysing the mental models that influence the design of these structures, policymakers will be able to identify accurate leverage points that can alter the system for the better due to their more comprehensive understanding of the problem, rather than only focusing on the tip of the iceberg.

Figure 5: Number of reported victims of human trafficking in the UK between 2016-2018 (Myska, 2019)


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