On 15-16 September, a global virtual conference marked the official opening of the new Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC).
The conference, on the subject of assisting and supporting survivors of modern slavery, was organised in partnership with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK (CPA UK), and brought together 250 survivor advocates and professionals from over 30 countries, with speakers including the former UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Chair of the Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act Frank Field, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery Prof Tomoya Obokata.
Here are five key things I took away from the event:
1. Current support systems are rarely fit for purpose.
It was striking how unified the speakers and participants were in the opinion that current support systems across the world are not fit for purpose. In some countries, there are barely any specialised services, whilst in others, though some services are available, they rarely take into account complexities of exploitative situations, specific vulnerabilities or individual needs of survivors, and lack a long-term recovery perspective.
Interestingly, it was highlighted that there has been a relative lack of evidence about ‘what works’ for improving short and long term outcomes for survivors. There’s clearly much to do and the Modern Slavery PEC is considering how it can engage with programmes and policies in different countries and to identify and embed broader definitions of best practice.
2. The Covid-19 pandemic made the situation even worse.
The conference confirmed that the Covid-19 pandemic has made many people more vulnerable to exploitation and complicates the provision of good support to survivors.
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has pushed people into looking for jobs they wouldn’t otherwise take - what happened in Leicester during the lockdown is a perfect example of this. The closure of schools alongside lockdown measures have put many children at an increased risk of being exploited online, particularly for sexual purposes. Another aspect is that many traffickers are taking advantage of an increased demand to migrate and fewer accessible routes available to trap people in debt.
At the same time, the pandemic has disrupted identification and support services for people affected, as already confirmed by the drop of identified cases in the UK in the last two quarters. With social distancing measures adding to the challenge of providing relevant housing and support for people affected, the opportunities to escape exploitation and access state support have diminished.
3. Meaningful inclusion of people with lived experience is a priority for the sector
The conference made it clear that there is an acute recognition within the sector of the urgent need to meaningfully include people with lived experience of modern slavery in its work. The need to bring survivors to the decision-making tables was one of the main subjects of event conversations. There were also countless comments throughout the conference challenging not only governments, but also organisations and individuals involved in the anti-slavery work, to improve meaningful engagement.
4. However, meaningful engagement is difficult and takes longer to build
As heartening as it was to hear a broad recognition of the need to include survivors in anti-slavery work, it was also clear that we as a sector have a lot to do in that regard.
We need to be ready to listen to survivors from the perspective of expertise, rather than just "listening to their stories". They need to sit at a table on the same footing as any other expert working in the field. As Sophie Otiende from the Kenyan organisation HAART put it, “If you can’t imagine a survivor doing your job, you’re not doing survivor inclusion.”
However, such inclusion needs long-term investment and work to build capacity and embed it in the organisations’ every-day practice, and it might be more uncomfortable than we might like.
For our part, we at the Modern Slavery PEC recognise that we need to consider how we design our calls for research, the criteria for selection, or indeed our own structures to ensure a more equitable engagement of people affected by modern slavery. We need to develop a platform that enables real involvement and leadership, rather than merely ‘input’ or ‘feedback’.
5. A big need to work together
The conference provided one of the first platforms for people from such diverse backgrounds, geographies and areas of anti-slavery work to come together, talk, exchange views, ask questions and compare experiences. And it was clear that it was one of the more important takeaways from the event: if we want to be more effective, we need to work together on a much larger scale.
The conference reassured us that the Modern Slavery PEC’s policy to require researchers and non-academic partners to collaborate on all projects we fund is an essential step towards generating impactful research. We also need to work together to translate the findings of this research for policymakers, so we not only catch their attention in a crowded space of ideas, but make accessing evidence easier for them.
Here at the Modern Slavery PEC, we feel the conference was an important first step in developing a collaborative approach to transforming the laws and policies designed to protect people from modern slavery across the world.
Jakub Sobik is the Communications Director at the Modern Slavery PEC.
On behalf of the Modern Slavery PEC, we would like to extend our thanks to all speakers and participants at the conference for taking an active part. Your expertise, open minds and willingness to listen made it a big success. We would also like to thank our colleagues from the CPA UK for preparing and running the event so efficiently, particularly with a big challenge of moving the event online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.