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Building the Future We Want– A Reflection on the Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Conference

Last week, I spent the day rapporteuring for the Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Conference (HTMS). Sponsored by the Scottish Parliament and hosted by the United Nations House Scotland, the HTMS Conference drew together people from all sectors of society to address one of the leading challenges of our time: ending human trafficking and modern slavery. About one hundred individuals attended the conference, representing different sectors of society; our speakers and panelists came from the UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance, Police Scotland, the Scottish Parliament, Migrant Help UK, the University of Nottingham, the University of Dundee, the Co-operative Group, HSBC and the Church of Scotland.

For me, the most important aspect of the event was the acknowledgement that if we are to end modern slavery and human trafficking there needs to be both an institutional and a social response. Setting the scene, our keynote speakers emphasized the need for multilateral support from our strongest institutions - Parliament, law enforcement and courts, but also our communities -- grocery stores, banks, and universities. In our shared fight we need to address the harsh reality that no country, city or community is untouched by the blight of human trafficking and modern slavery.

Kevin Hyland, OBE, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner presents on how his office works to combat modern slavery, notably stating,"We need to put the same resources into ending human trafficking as we do into ending drug crimes, because the commodity of this crime is a human life."

The HTMS Conference arose as a response to this reality. The goal was to raise awareness of the crimes of human trafficking, including labour and sexual exploitation of adults and children, domestic servitude, and criminal exploitation. While the Scottish Government passed the Modern Slavery and Exploitation Act in 2015, the successful ongoing implementation of the Strategy means coming together to address the wider conditions that foster trafficking and slavery. The sociopolitical and economic driving forces of HTMS are diverse and interconnected - if we are to create effective solutions, we too must diversify and form collaborative partnerships.

The conference itself was divided into three sessions: (1) Multi-agency responses in Scotland (2) Best practices in victim identification & support, and (3) Scotland’s private sector role in combating HTMS. During the conference, I found that these sessions represented different stages of an open introspection; by first laying out how we are responding to the problem, we can address what works or does not work, and how to move forward. Embedded in this discussion was the incorporation of survivor needs and asking the question: how can we best identify and support survivors? While the problem of HTMS needs our institutions and communities to respond, our actions must always place the needs of survivors at the forefront. I personally found the vital inclusion of this session to be the most interesting discussion of the conference. It is easy to distance ourselves from the harsh realities of HTMS, to rattle off a list of statistics and Sustainable Developments Goals (SDG’s 5, 8, 16, 17, respectively); in doing so, we risk discounting the inherently human nature of the violations occurring. As a global community, it is important to humanise the issue by incorporating and amplifying victims’ voices into our solutions.

Kevin Bales, CMG, of University of Nottingham presents on the innovative ways human trafficking can be identified, including using satellite images taken from space.

In addition, effective responses mean constantly trying to view this problem from different angles to find more effective solutions. Professor Kevin Bales, from the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, advocated for creative technological solutions to the problem of trafficking identification. One such solution was the Rights Lab’s Slavery from Space initiative, which crowdsources satellite imagery to identify potential sites of slavery. We can only fix a problem when we know it exists, and efforts like these are important because it removes the veil of invisibility allowing the trafficking and slave industry to persist. While only one example among the many given, this initiative shows the kind of creative thinking needed.

Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery is a deterioration of the human values that bind us as an international community. Many times, HTMS is weaponised as the destructive force used to propel other international issues and degrade the dignity of human life. With ILO estimates that human trafficking and forced labor affects 21 million people and creates illicit profits of $150 billion annually, we must be critical in our introspection as politicians, lawyers, academics, and ultimately consumers. Our global action plan, and indeed the Scottish action plan, needs to continue utilising the strength of our institutions and communities to combat human trafficking and modern slavery.

View more information on UN House's anti-human trafficking efforts, and the "See Me, Free Me" Campaign.

Christina McKay is a resident intern at UN House, and a visiting student from the University of California, Berkeley. Photos by Samantha Ku.

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