As We Approach the Olympics, it is Time to Start Taking Slavery Seriously

Published in The Huffington Post on Wednesday, 21st December, 2011.

On 10 December 1948 the United Nations declared “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Last week marked the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Forged out of the ashes of the Second World War, the Declaration set out inalienable human rights based upon the pillars of justice, dignity and equality.

Article Four of the Declaration states “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Despite this, human trafficking, the modern day version of the slave trade, is flourishing.

The United Nations estimates that 12 million people around the world are enslaved and at least 600,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders each year. Academics such as Kevin Bale claim that real number of people who are enslaved is likely to be closer to 30 million. This includes thousands of people in the United Kingdom.

Successive governments have not done enough to fight the scourge of contemporary slavery. Despite strong rhetoric, the Coalition have been lacklustre in their approach.

An EU Directive to tighten regulations was delayed by nine months to appease Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers. Britain refused to back the International Labour Organisation’s Convention for the Rights of Domestic Workers, weakening international efforts to help the fight against domestic servitude. And the National Referral Mechanism, a system established to identify and help victims, whilst invaluable barely touches the surface of the true number of people that are trafficked into the UK.

Earlier this year I organised an anti-slavery event in Parliament and contacted the Home Office in order to invite officials to attend. After a prolonged wait, I was informed by a confused operator that they were not sure that human trafficking was something that the Home Office dealt with.

This hardly squares with David Cameron’s declaration that tackling human trafficking is a “key priority” for his government.

As we move into 2012, the focus of the world’s attention will be fixed squarely on the UK. The London 2012 Olympic Games provide an ideal opportunity to raise the profile of the fight against slavery, both in order to help those currently enslaved and to stop new victims being lured to the UK by the apparent opportunities that the Games provide.

Major sporting events are a strong attraction for those engaged in organised crime, particularly human trafficking. The Coalition appear to have adopted a ‘wait and see’ stance, claiming that they will deal with trafficking issues as and when they arise. However, recent European hosts, such as Greece in 2004 and Germany in 2006, have adopted pro-active approaches – particularly in the area of forced prostitution. This has included media campaigns to raise awareness and extra training for law enforcement agencies to spot victims.

As we approach the Olympic Games, it is time for us all to start taking contemporary slavery seriously. Far from being resigned to the history books, it is still endemic. Slavery is a perennial problem and requires coordinated and systematic international action.

At the launch of The Centre for Social Justice’s review of slavery earlier this year, Iain Duncan Smith declared that “now is the time for action.” I could not agree more.

The question is, who is going to tell his government?

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