The cost of living crisis in the United Kingdom has left families struggling to pay essential household bills, forcing many to incur significant debt just to manage their daily expenses. This debt creates a severe vulnerability, which traffickers can target and exploit.
As recently addressed in an article by former UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, families across the UK have been struggling to pay for food, heating and other essentials due to the cost of living crisis. Many people have turned to loans and borrowing as a form of temporary financial security, however for many this security is nothing of the sort. That is because borrowing from loan sharks and other private lenders incurs significant interest, which can be as high as 130,000 per cent, which then spirals into an uncontrollable debt.
This increase in financial vulnerability is being seen nationwide. A recent BBC poll reported that 5% of people have started borrowing from private loan sharks and similar methods, which equates to almost 1.4 million households who now have an increased vulnerability to exploitation. With many people left in financial vulnerability situations, turning to risky lenders may feel like their only option.
Financial vulnerability will attract traffickers who use debt bondage to remain in control over those who they are exploiting. Debt bondage is when traffickers subject their victims to a recurring further debt, which incurs interest, making it near impossible for the victim to pay it off in full, and therefore remaining in the trafficker’s control. Debt bondage remains one of the most prevalent means to control victims used by traffickers, with approximately 20% of all people currently in forced labour exploitation in the private economy being subject to debt bondage, and poverty as one of the main indicators of vulnerability to exploitation. It was a common tactic used by the gang responsible for the largest modern slavery case in UK history, brought down by an investigation known as Operation Fort.
Traffickers may use false promises of income: for example, that the victim will make back enough money to repay their existing loans. They may suggest that it can be repaid through participating in their illegal businesses, such as through sex work or drug trafficking. If involved in illegal work, this forces victims to commit crimes, which is another common tactic by traffickers to retain their coercive power. They dangle the threat of the victim being reported to the police if they do not do what the trafficker demands. This mix of deception, threat of imprisonment, and debt bondage then creates a situation which can feel impossible for the person being trafficked to break out of.
The signs of an increase in human trafficking are already clear. The Centre for Social Justice stated in a recent report: “We have been alarmed by numerous cases we have seen in which illegal lenders have demanded a borrower support their ‘business’ by delivering drugs or referring new clients to them. In others, sexual favours have been demanded, with one lender even writing the expectation of sexual services into a borrower’s ‘contract’.”
As highlighted in Gordon Brown’s article, there has been an increasing trend for illegal money lending to be moved online, where predators are rife due to the difficultly in monitor and tracking online. The lack of scrutiny when using back-door or online lending can increase the attractiveness for traffickers to be involved as they are less likely to be caught. Recent findings by the UNODC show that convictions of perpetrators have nearly halved between 2017 and 2020. This exacerbates the issue and pushes need to act and protect those who may be vulnerable to exploitation.
This issue is happening all across the UK, and the world, but specifically the England Illegal Money Lending Team has pointed out a large concentration of cases in Manchester, Lancashire, Merseyside, and in the Midlands. If you are in these areas, learn the signs of debt bondage and modern slavery, and talk with those around you to ensure that no one falls prey to the false promises set by traffickers. The UNODC report showed that 41% of survivors of trafficking get out of their exploitation on their own or with the support of civil society, communities or family. This is why Hope for Justice, and other civil society organisations that are working to end slavery, place such importance on community-based and community-led prevention strategies. It illustrates how individuals have the power to act and spot trafficking from happening.
By educating ourselves to spot the signs of modern slavery and human trafficking, we can bring down this $150 billion criminal industry, protect those that need help, and be the generation to end modern slavery.