For us in the anti-trafficking community, last night’s speech by Theresa May was certainly encouraging. In a service at Westminster Abbey, the Prime Minister once again reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to ending human trafficking. During a wreath-laying ceremony to celebrate the life and work of William Wilberforce, May spoke of her desire to see the UK “lead the world” in efforts to “stamp out” ‘this despicable trade’ for good.
Since taking over as PM, this is at least the third major speech May has made on the subject. With the exception of Brexit – understandably dominant of political discourse at the moment – it’s hard to think of a policy pursued as consistently or aggressively as the anti-slavery agenda.
But we need to save the mutual back-patting for now. Undoubtedly, the UK has changed gears and upped the bar for other nations. Yet the gravity of this issue demands scrupulous honesty and a willingness to be self-critical. And the truth is that the problem actually seems to be getting worse: one global estimate puts the number of people living in slave-like conditions at fully ten million more than in 2014.
Similarly, the PM’s announcement of a £33 million fund for front-line anti-trafficking initiatives is a vast improvement on recent years, but we have to keep this is in perspective: the U.N. International Labour Organisation estimates that profits from human trafficking hover at around the $150 billion mark.
That’s a massive disparity. Enough to fill even the most zealous human-rights type with despair.
But nil desperandum, as they used to say. The anti-trafficking community is a relative newcomer to the human rights sphere. It is still establishing itself and getting to grips with the utterly Herculean task it faces – a task linked to every contemporary malaise from the various migrants’ crises to wealth inequality. Against this background, the UK is blazing a trail in the struggle against human trafficking, and this ought to be a matter of considerable national pride.
Luke de Pulford is director of the Arise Foundation, a charity dedicated to supporting grass-roots networks against human trafficking