Skip to main content

Human Trafficking


Human Trafficking

Recent research argues that the problem of human trafficking needs to be seen as one of inequality and structural marginalisation.

Human trafficking between Eastern Central Europe and the United Kingdom

Human trafficking is a serious crime and violation of human rights. It involves transportation of people to exploit them in forced labour, domestic servitude or sexual exploitation. According to estimates by charities such as Unseen UK, tens of thousands of people are trafficked in the United Kingdom alone.

Human Trafficking: Railway tracks.

Matej Blazek is a Lecturer in Human Geography at Newcastle University. Along with his colleagues at Loughborough University, he investigated the stories of Slovakians who were trafficked into the UK between 2012 and 2015. Slovakia, like other areas of Eastern Central Europe, has emerged as one of the top countries for human trafficking into the United Kingdom.

As Dr Blazek explains, reasons for this can be traced to the problem of inequality:

“Slovakia and other Eastern Central European countries include areas with the highest rates of poverty and greatest degrees of socio-economic deprivation in the whole of the European Union. The scarcity of resources and lifelong lack of prospects are the reasons why people follow traffickers’ deceptive promises of better life in a foreign country.”

Structural factors of human trafficking

The structural issues behind human trafficking show that people who experience it are not simply random victims of crime. They are often targeted because traffickers know they need money or because they have family members to provide for. Dr Blazek notes:

“One participant in our study told us how strangers approached him at a train station in Slovakia with an offer to work in England. Their first question was how many children he had.”

A social justice perspective shifts our understanding of human trafficking from individual harm and criminality towards structural conditions that facilitate exploitation. Acts of actual human trafficking receive the most attention from our media, criminal agencies and support organisations. Yet human trafficking stories do not begin with a criminal, but with poverty and exclusion.

Exploitation across time and space

The social justice perspective is crucial for understanding the life trajectories of people who are trafficked.

They are subject to severe exploitation from traffickers and their associates. But many have experience with exploitation both before and after trafficking.

Stories of human trafficking are inseparable from often lifelong stories of hardship and marginalisation.

For example, a Slovak man forced into unpaid labour in England returned home and found a job, but the new employer did not pay him and later threatened to kill him.

For many people, human trafficking is a harrowing experience. But it is only one episode in a much longer traumatic story.

There are others whose lives after human trafficking take a turn for the better. But they still face challenges of poverty, debt, stigma and – particularly in case of Roma people – of racial exclusion.

Gendered cultural norms sometimes play into the development of human trafficking, as young women from poor communities are pushed towards marriages with strangers or sexual exploitation.

Human Trafficking: farm workers

Agency and resistance in human trafficking

Despite this bleak outline, Dr Blazek’s research comes up with some positives. He and his colleagues refrain from calling people who experience trafficking “victims”. They wish stay away from portraying them as passive sufferers without the capacity to act.

On the contrary, their research suggests that people are targeted by traffickers for their agency, for their ability to:

  • endure exploitation
  • undertake physically and mentally exhausting work
  • sacrifice themselves for their families

Stories of human trafficking are also extraordinary stories of resistance, creativity and exceptional strength. Not only during the period of trafficking exploitation, but equally before and after, where many participants cope in extremely difficult conditions.

Human trafficking after Brexit

The UK's intended departure from the European Union raises the question of whether new migration rules might reduce trafficking activities from Eastern Central Europe. Dr Blazek is sceptical about the potential of border management to end human trafficking:

“Human trafficking is embedded in structural factors, not individual journeys. Traffickers are opportunistic. They are capable of shifting their operations in line with existing constraints. Tightened migration management will not address the marginalisation of individuals and communities. And not least, human trafficking also takes place also within the United Kingdom with no border crossing.”

We need effective strategies to reduce inequalities. We need to end the hostile environment for marginalised migrants. And we need to build new forms of engagement with underprivileged communities.