Officers from Border Force, the National Crime Agency (NCA), and Home Office Immigration Enforcement have taken part in a major European operation to tackle human trafficking from West Africa.
The operation, which took place on Wednesday 11 June, focused on a number of inbound flights to Heathrow Airport, a major European transit hub for West African flights, with the aim of detecting potential victims and gaining intelligence on the organised crime groups involved in trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
As part of the operation Home Office Immigration Enforcement liaison officers in Lagos and Madrid worked with local law enforcement agencies to provide extra intelligence and conduct checks on those travelling to the United Kingdom.
At Heathrow, officers from Border Force’s specially-trained Safeguarding and Trafficking Team, working alongside the NCA, carried out additional screening of passengers including those in transit to other EU nations.
The case of a 16-year-old girl, identified as a potential victim of trafficking, was referred to social services, while safeguarding checks were carried out on a number of other arrivals. Intelligence gathered was fed on to other law enforcement agencies in the UK and abroad. Additionally three people were prevented from boarding a flight from Lagos to Heathrow for immigration reasons.
The day of action was co-ordinated by Europol, with involvement from law enforcement agencies in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Ireland, Czech Republic, Ireland, Finland, Switzerland, Norway and Portugal as well as the UK.
Samantha Rigler, head of the Border Force Heathrow Safeguarding and Trafficking team, said:
The UK is a destination country for trafficking victims from West Africa but it is also a key transit point for onward travel to other European destinations.
We regularly conduct these kinds of operations at Heathrow working with our immigration liaison officers abroad, but by being part of this Europe-wide day of action we have increased our impact against the organised crime groups involved in trafficking.
Those crime groups are often based outside the UK, so we are working with law enforcement partners at home and abroad to bring them to justice and prevent people becoming victims of this appalling crime.
We are determined to send a message out that the UK will not tolerate any form of modern slavery.
Similar operations carried out in the last two weeks by Border Force at Heathrow, supported by Immigration Enforcement colleagues in Lagos, have led to the identification of five potential victims of trafficking and one suspected trafficker, all prevented from boarding flights to the UK. The case of another potential victim identified at Heathrow was referred for further investigation. Further intelligence has also been disseminated to numerous other law enforcement agencies in the UK and abroad.
Liam Vernon, from the NCA’s UK Human Trafficking Centre, said:
The trafficking of women and children from West Africa to the UK is a significant problem - victims are tricked into believing they will work or study in the UK, only to be sold into a life of sexual slavery by the organised crime gangs behind this vile trade.
We are determined to prevent this, to protect and support victims and pursue the criminals making money from the misery of innocent people. Working in collaboration with other EU countries is essential and sends a strong message to the traffickers that we are united in our efforts to tackle modern slavery.
According to provisional figures, more than 673 persons, mainly women from West African countries, were checked across the countries involved in the operation. Of those, 111 potential victims of trafficking (mostly women from Nigeria) were identified. Via cross-checks at the Europol headquarters, more than 30 persons were found to have links to criminal structures. As a result of the day of action, new investigations have been launched in several participating countries with Europol’s support.
The operation came the same week as Home Secretary Theresa May published details of a new Modern Slavery Bill. The Bill is the first of its kind in Europe, and one of the first in the world, to specifically address slavery and trafficking in the 21st Century.