London: Human rights groups have flayed the existing British anti-trafficking policy, saying it was punishing victims of trafficking instead of targetting those behind the crime.
They have found disparities in the successful identification of trafficking victims, leading to fears that officials are overly concerned with immigration issues rather than assisting the victims of traumatic crimes, including sexual exploitation and forced labour.
The charges are listed in a report, `Wrong Kind Of Victim?`, brought out by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, a coalition of human rights organisations including Amnesty International UK, Anti-Slavery International and ECPAT UK (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children).
The campaigners say there is clear evidence that criminals are even controlling their victims by warning that they will be seen as "illegal immigrants" not victims, and would be subject to detention and removed from the country or even imprisoned.
The report also criticises Border Agency staff for taking decisions without showing any understanding of trafficking issues.
In one case a West African woman in her twenties was told that though her "experiences" of being forced to have sex with strange men were "extremely unpleasant", this did "not amount to trafficking" because she had failed to escape her tormentors when she had the opportunity.
The BBC interviewed an Indian woman, identified as Geeta, who says she came to the UK looking for work in 2004 with a family friend. Upon arrival, the friend reportedly confiscated her passport and began abusing her. She escaped from him in 2008 and when she went to the home authorities, they wouldn`t believe her story and told her she should have escaped much earlier. Geeta told the BBC: "I don`t know any person. I don`t know anywhere to go. So how can I go? They say, `You don`t have any witness`. What can I say? How can I give a witness? Why do they not believe?"
Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said: "In particular, the identification system is clearly not fit for purpose, with under-trained staff displaying ignorance over what trafficking actually is. It should be overhauled, with other agencies and specialist NGOs brought in and the emphasis switched to victim-protection so that it`s not all about hounding people for immigration offences."
In the nine months to January 2010, for example, only 36 individuals had trafficking offences brought to court, despite the government estimating that some 5,000 trafficked people are currently in the UK.
The report`s analysis of 527 cases referred to the identification scheme between April and December 2009 found marked disparities in outcomes. Seventy-six per cent of referred UK citizens were positively identified as trafficked, while this was only 29 per cent for EU nationals and just 12 per cent for non-EU nationals.
The report cautions that this is not necessarily evidence of active discrimination, but its authors called for the appointment of an independent anti-trafficking watchdog to properly check the work of officials. They also want an independent watchdog to consider whether any discrimination was taking place.
Immigration Minister Damian Green said: "Our response must be about far more than law enforcement - identifying and protecting victims of this terrible crime is absolutely fundamental to tackling trafficking. I will look very carefully at the individual criticisms of the system set up in 2009, and act where necessary."