Is Modern Slavery the Domain of Organized Crime?

14 August 2018
Research Innovation

Sasha Jesperson  | Co-founder and Director, ITERU

For many people, when they think of human trafficking, what comes to mind is gangsters forcing people—often women and girls—to leave their homes and engage in dangerous, often violent activities against their will under the threat of violence in order to make money. When organized crime is involved, modern slavery is more dangerous for victims and more difficult for authorities to detect and address.

There are many unanswered questions about the relationship between organized crime and human trafficking: What form does organized criminal involvement take? How cohesive are criminal networks are across the supply chain? What elements of human trafficking are criminal networks involved in? How much violence is involved? An alliance of NGOs identified in 2012 how little we know about this part of human trafficking, and there hasn’t been a significant growth in analysis since then.

The recognition of human trafficking and modern slavery as an organized crime problem is increasing, however. The United Kingdom’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, frequently refers to the organized crime elements that underpin slavery, drawing on his experiences heading up the Metropolitan Police Human Trafficking and Kidnap Unit. The UK Modern Slavery Act, which came into force in 2015, includes provisions to target slave drivers and those facilitating exploitation. In response, the National Crime Agency created a Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit to address the criminality that underpins human trafficking and established a Joint Slavery and Trafficking and Analysis Centre in 2017 to bring together analysts from various law enforcement agencies to share and analyze intelligence.

When organized crime is involved, modern slavery is more dangerous for victims and more difficult for authorities to detect and address.

Despite this, a nuanced understanding of how organized crime networks facilitate trafficking has been lacking. A Centre for Social Justice report examined the role of organized crime groups in modern slavery in Europe. Their report outlined several cases that involved these groups structured into “power pyramids”, with “divisions of foot soldiers who will play their role in whichever division they are employed to operate within to recruit, transit or run the daily management of controlling victims”.

But the networks facilitating human trafficking and modern slavery are fluid and adaptive. Analysis by the Institute for International Research on Criminal Policy ahead of the 2010 UN Crime Congress concluded that “not only does there exist an enormous diversity in the landscape of organized criminal involvement in both [trafficking and smuggling], but also there is an enormous diversity as to the different types of actors active in these markets”. At the time, researchers developed a typology of how criminal structures are organized that includes hierarchical structures that resemble traditional mafia-type organizations, networks of loosely connected individuals, as well as unorganized criminal involvement that may be individuals or social networks.

Organized crime networks involved in other criminal activities have evolved to become more business-like and less violent. Although modern slavery is inevitably more violent than other organized criminal activities because people are the commodity being traded and exploited, it can be expected that the groups and networks controlling the trade have followed a similar trend. A detailed understanding of the structures of organized crime groups involved in human trafficking and other modern slavery practices is needed in order to tailor political, law enforcement and other strategies to effectively undermine criminal involvement.

Over the past 12 months, researchers from the Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery at St Mary’s University have been investigating the role of organized crime in modern slavery. In the UK, three countries frequently feature amongst the top source countries of referrals to the National Referral Mechanism: Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam. These countries have been the focus of our investigations.

Woman walking down the street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Unsplash/Thijs Degenkamp

We have set out to understand the role of organized crime along the transit routes from Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam into Europe, in order to assess what roles organized criminal networks play in the movement and exploitation of people, how cohesive they are along the route, how they are organized, whether they are engaged in other criminal activity, and what this means for the response to modern slavery. The results of this project will be the focus of this column.

Over the coming months, we will share the key findings from these three countries. Alongside this project, we have also been conducting empirical research in additional countries, which we will profile here. Based on this research, we are also developing conclusions on the role of organized crime in modern slavery and how it functions as an industry, as well as the shifting categorizations individuals fill as they travel—moving from trafficking to smuggling and back again, with implications for the crime that is perpetrated and the way people on the move view themselves. As we continue to process the empirical data, it is likely that additional themes will emerge, so join us as the project evolves.

Sasha Jesperson is an associate fellow at the Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery at St Mary’s University Twickenham.

This article has been prepared by Sasha Jesperson as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.



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