In a bid to prevent the rise of human trafficking, 97 people have been arrested in the U.K. on suspicion of immigration offences after raids on 280 nail bars in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh. The result was announced Wednesday, with the majority of those arrested Vietnamese nationals. The crackdown also detained people of Mongolian, Ghanaian, Chinese, Nigerian, Pakistani and Indian origin.
The arrests were part of a Home Office enforcement campaign named ‘Operation Magnify’ and took place between November and December this year. The Government says the campaign involves identifying specific sectors and businesses where illegal migrant workers are being employed, then targeting them to “root out illegal working.” Sectors include construction, agriculture, prostitution, car washing, and domestic work.
The move came after Prime minister Theresa May promised in July to help end modern slavery, which she described as “the great human rights issue of our time.” Immigration minister Robert Goodwill said the initiative would also help tackle: “a barbaric crime which destroys the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our society.” But campaigners are concerned that the issues of modern slavery and immigration are being ‘unhelpfully’ mixed together.
Of the 97 people arrested in the nail bar raids between 27 November and 3 December, 14 have been referred to the National Referral Mechanism hub, a service supporting people thought to be victims of slavery and human trafficking. The Home Office stated that victims of trafficking will be offered support, while ‘those who have no right to be in the UK will be removed’.
“Illegal working offences actually make it more difficult to work against slavery,” Jakub Sobik, spokesperson for Anti Slavery told VICE News. “The problem is it gives traffickers yet another tool of control over their victims. They can tell them ‘if you don’t do what I say I’ll report you, and not only will you be deported but you’ll be prosecuted too’.”
“This mixing of the two issues is counterproductive to anti-trafficking work,” Sobik continues. “The illegal working offence should be removed and victims of modern slavery should never be charged with it, after all they’ve been forced to do this work – it’s not by their own will.”
In 2015, over 3,200 people – including nearly 1,000 children – were referred to British authorities as potential victims of slavery, an increase of 40% from 2014. Modern slavery is believed to be one of the world’s largest international crime industries with victims often working in plain sight of communities.
People trafficked to the UK could typically have been promised a job or a new life abroad, but once they arrive they are told they cannot stop working until the debts they have incurred have been paid off. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that the total illegal profits obtained from the use of forced labour worldwide amount to over $150 billion per year.
“Obviously, not everyone working in a nail bar is a victim of modern slavery,” says Sobik. “but if you see someone you are worried about – who is withdrawn, won’t make eye contact, won’t answer questions and seems in fear of their employer, you can take action by calling an anti–slavery hotline like Unseen or even Crime Stoppers.”