Human trafficking - what are the signs to look for?

Human trafficking is happening here in the UK as well as all over the world. It could be happening near you. So we all need to be more aware and know what signs to look for. Then know what to do if you feel someone is being exploited.

By offering potential victims false promises, traffickers paint a rosy picture of a better life, such as a good job, educational opportunity or marriage. If a potential victim falls for the false promises, the trafficker transports the person to another place or country for exploitation. The person becomes a victim of human trafficking.

Anyone who is vulnerable. Men, women and children of all nationalities. People can become vulnerable to trafficking through a variety of interrelated factors. Poverty is often seen as the most significant indicator of vulnerability in relation to trafficking, however in reality the picture can be much more complicated and vulnerabilities may often be a lot more subtle. The UN list the following as contributory factors:

  • Being a child
  • Gender
  • Poverty
  • Social and cultural exclusion
  • Limited access to education
  • Political instability and war conflict
  • Social, cultural and legal frameworks
  • Movement and demand

Victims of trafficking do not run away because they are controlled by their traffickers. For example through debt bondage, a victim is told that he or she owes the trafficker money used for transportation, accommodation, food or the like. The 'debt' never decreases and the victim remains trapped by the trafficker. Other forms of control include taking and keeping a victim's identity or travel documents, use of threats to harm the victim's family, locking up the victim, and forced drug use. The victim is completely controlled and often too afraid to try to escape.

Often, victims do not even have basic control over their daily decisions such as when to sleep, eat or rest. Their lives are at the mercy of the traffickers who subject the victims to physical violence, repeated rape, torture, forced drug use, forced abortions and psychological manipulation. Victims risk contracting sexually transmitted infections such as HIV & AIDS. The trafficking experience is traumatic and damages the physical, mental and social well-being of a person. Trafficking can take place across a national border and also within a single country, for example, there are British people who have become victims of trafficking within the UK.

Sexual exploitation

Involves any non-consensual or abusive sexual acts performed without a victim’s permission. This can also include prostitution, escort work and pornography.

Domestic servitude

Involves being forced to work in private households. Their movement will often be restricted and they will be forced to perform household tasks such as child care and house-keeping over long hours and for little if any pay. Isolation, no unsupervised freedom and often sleeping on a mattress on the floor in an open part of the house are common.

Forced labour

Involves victims being compelled to work very long hours, often in arduous conditions, and to hand over the majority if not all of their wages to their traffickers. Forced labour crucially implies the use of coercion and lack of freedom or choice for the victim. In many cases victims are subjected to verbal threats or violence to achieve compliance.

Forced criminality

Involves victims, often children, who are forced to commit a range of crimes, including street crime such as DVD selling, bag snatching, ATM theft, pick-pocketing and forced begging.

Organ harvesting

Involves trafficking people in order to use their internal organs for transplant. The illegal trade is dominated by kidneys, which are in the greatest demand and are the only major organs that can be wholly transplanted with relatively few risks to the life of the donor.

The signs to look for depend on where trafficking might take place:

On a farm or factory:

  • Foreign nationals doing farm/factory work
  • Poor/non-existent safety equipment
  • Unsuitable clothing
  • Workers live in overcrowded private rented accommodation
  • Minibuses pick up non-UK nationals at unusual hours
  • Bins full of fast food packaging
  • Workers fearful/poorly integrated into wider community
  • Workers have no time off
  • Employers/others hold their passport/legal documents

Domestic labour:

  • Foreign national adult/child lives with family (possibly as a domestic servant/nanny)
  • Rarely allowed out of house, unless accompanied
  • Subjected to verbal/physical abuse
  • No private space/poor sleeping arrangements
  • Poor diet/leftovers
  • If a child, poor attendance at school/no time to play
  • Person not interacting much with family

In a sauna or massage parlour:

  • Woman is a foreign national
  • Unhappy/unwilling to perform sexual acts
  • Frightened or in physical pain
  • Sees large number of clients each day/night
  • Able to keep little/no money
  • 'Special' services offered, often at low price
  • Woman doesn't smile/reluctant to cooperate
  • Food paid for by another
  • Little/no time off
  • Only knows sex-related English words

If you are travelling:

  • Foreign national child travelling alone
  • Has little except a mobile phone
  • Not travelling to UK to meet parent/guardian
  • Suspicious of adults
  • Afraid of being deported
  • Shows signs of inappropriate/sexualised behaviour

On your high street:

  • Young, elderly/disabled foreign national begging in public places/on public transport
  • Obvious signs of abuse
  • Fearful of adults (especially law enforcers); jumpy
  • One adult is the guardian of large group of children
  • Large group of adult/child beggars moving daily to different locations, returning to same location every night
  • Moving as a group on public transport

Children in a home:

  • Teenage girl meets older male ‘boyfriend’. Flattery/gifts ensue, then introduction to alcohol/drugs
  • Man claims she owes him for drugs. Forces her to do sexual favours
  • Girl taken from family home, returned after varying lengths of time; relationship with family/guardians increasingly severed
  • Pictures/films of her engaging in sex activities produce guilt and fear
  • Girl taken to different flats to sleep with different men
  • Girl may not know man is taking payment

If you see something suspicious, call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111

Or contact Modern Slavery on 0800 0121 700


Adult victims

If you have concerns over a possible adult victim of trafficking, call the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army took responsibility for delivering the UK Government’s contract in July 2011 to manage support services for adult female and male victims of Human Trafficking.

The Salvation Army 24 hour confidential referral helpline : 0300 3038151.

Child victims

If you are a professional working with a child victim of trafficking, you can call the NSPCC National Trafficking Advice Centre on 0808 800 5000 Monday to Friday 9.30am to 4.30pm.

This advice line is only for professionals working with child victims of trafficking.