Tumbling Lassie 2018: Disrupting trafficking networks

Eric Robertson

Advocate Eric Robertson recalls some powerful perspectives on targeted law enforcement presented at this year’s human trafficking seminar in the Faculty of Advocates.

Sometimes one person’s story can speak volumes about a grievous wrong that needs to be put right. In 1687 a young girl, was forced to perform an acrobatic routine as part of a travelling show in Edinburgh. Her escape to freedom was only made secure by a Court of Session decision. The judges refused the showman’s claim that the “tumbling lassie” was his property, declaring:

“But we have no slaves in Scotland – and mothers cannot sell their bairns”.

The third Tumbling Lassie Seminar on 14 April 2018 in the Faculty of Advocates’ Mackenzie Building, off the High Street, began with another startling story – from our own times. The audience listened in absolute stillness as Raja Ebenezer gently told his tale of rescue and restoration. In 2002 as a boy of 14, he was forced to work in an Indian brick factory. His family had taken a loan to raise money for a family wedding. But what should have been a story of joy turned to one of misery, then despair. The unscrupulous lender required Raja’s family to toil in his brick kiln to “pay off” the debt. Except that the debt never quite could be repaid… For nineteen hours at a stretch, each day, every day, in the heat and with aching limbs, the boy, his family, and others like them, laboured on and on.

By 2004 though, International Justice Mission (IJM) became involved. They recognised that all was not right in the kiln; they recognised that the workforce should not be treated as beasts of labour but as human beings held against their will by chains of debt or intimidation. Gradually, they built the case for intervention and persuaded the local authorities to act. One April day in 2004, the rescue mission went in. 103 people – including Raja and his family – walked free.

Had the story stopped there, that would have been inspiration enough for the day’s discussions. But there was more – Raja returned to school and was the first member of his family to complete secondary education. He then spent five years studying for a law degree and after graduation, was recruited by IJM to join their legal team. He now builds cases and plays a part in vital rescue missions for the enslaved and the exploited, from IJM’s Chennai base.

This dramatic story set the scene for a fascinating series of insights into effective action to disrupt networks of human trafficking and exploitation. Andy Bevan, Scotland Director for IJM told of the landmark progress of the Chennai office from its 2001 inception – in addition to the large numbers freed and in IJM’s 2 year recovery programme post rescue, more than 29,200 police, government officials, NGOS and others had been trained in relation to human trafficking issues. 2010 had seen the historic conviction of a rice mill owner for “habitual dealing” in slaves. 2016 was remarkable for a court conviction of eight traffickers, imposing life sentences.  The blight of modern day slavery is massive in scale – over 40 million held as slaves, with four billion people living outside the protection of the law according to the UN. IJM’s systematic interventions are however making highly significant inroads and transforming lives.

Bronagh Andrew of TARA (Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance) also spoke movingly about another real-life story of a young woman anonymised as “Maria”. What began with deception, coercion and repeated callous sexual exploitation continued as a story of support, escape and restoration to family and home country. An anguished call to the police began communications which built trust and healed trauma. Maria’s contacts with TARA and Police Scotland freed her and also enabled decisive disruption action - resulting in the recovery of another two exploited women and the detention of a male suspect. A member of the TARA team was a native speaker of Maria’s language, able to get alongside her. TARA made sure by good contact with an NGO and Maria’s country’s government that her return to her family was secure, without the serious risk of being re-trafficked.

The vital role of good international co-operation was further developed by the two keynote speakers. Police Scotland’s DCI Rory Hamilton spoke of the Joint Investigative Teams (JITs) that had helped crack a Romanian organised crime gang, trafficking women for sex in Glasgow. Romanian police and justice authorities played a critical role. In Scotland, a whole range of UK government agencies such as HMRC, the Home Office, and Border Force combined with the Scottish government and groups such as TARA, Migrant Help and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority in disrupting trafficking. DCI Hamilton spoke of the invaluable role of Eurojust and Europol in those efforts.

From the perspective of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in London, Pam Bowen CBE told of a recent international conference, attended by invited representatives of many countries across the globe, to address shared standards and best practice and foster ongoing co-operation in the detection and prosecution of human trafficking offences and caring support for those rescued from the clutches of perpetrators. The DPP for England and Wales and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) played dynamic roles in devising and delivering a very successful initiative. The top Law Officer of Northern Ireland and Scotland’s Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, took part in the summit.

The Tumbling Lassie Seminar was delighted to welcome back Scotland’s other Law Officer, Alison Di Rollo QC, Solicitor General, to participate in the panel discussions. She brought news of the excellent work being carried out by Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) and paid warm tribute to Kathleen Harper’s contribution in the prosecution of trafficking and exploitation cases.

In addition to the “good and satisfactory outcome… of a fair prosecution” in the McPhee case, she spoke of the utility of Prevention Orders which restrict the communications of those convicted for significant periods following release, giving further protection. There was an ongoing need to maintain vital links with Eurojust and Europol. Police Scotland’s network of Local Champions in all divisions played a vital part in informing and engaging the local community. Edinburgh City Council was noted by DCI Rory Hamilton as being singularly active and effective in such efforts.

One of the most interesting themes that emerged was the need for evidence that is truly convincing in a criminal case where conviction requires proof beyond reasonable doubt. Pam Bowen showed two photographs which eloquently made the case that visuals can be more telling than words. The word “squalid” might just be an exaggeration of “untidy” for some people – but these photos left the viewer in no doubt of the details.  First - a dirty, battered exterior shot of a wrecked caravan. Second - an interior shot of scattered bedding, a litter of plastic bags and mess and the horrific detail of a dog-bowl on the floor to feed the workers. There was some discussion of the power of evidence captured in real-time on body cams worn by police officers. In Cheshire, a group of very observant workers – the librarians of Nantwich – alerted the authorities to a trafficker who had raised their suspicions by his very extensive use of the library’s computers and his array of multiple mobile phones.

The gathering of evidence requires care and calculation. Too aggressive a crackdown on websites might drive activity underground – on the dark web where it is beyond reach. In response to a query about what new powers or assets would make a real difference, use of wiretap in domestic cases and not just where the foreign legal system permits was suggested. A purpose built reception facility for victims or survivors could also be very positive.

Towards the end of the seminar, an uncomfortable question was posed. Are we as a society - and as individuals - at times complicit in wrongdoing? Is the cheap car wash or nail bar service just as convenient and welcome to us as sugar was to our eighteenth century ancestors?

These questions should bother us. When we remember Raja, Maria and others like them, we remember that they are only free because others cared enough to notice and to act.