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Britain’s home secretary: combating human trafficking requires global effort

On Monday at Northeastern, Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May said that perpetrators of human trafficking know no borders, operating across countries, continents, and oceans.

As a result, stopping these perpetrators and bringing them to justice, she said, requires a global effort.

“It’s vital that we work together internationally to fight this evil,” May said during a panel discussion focusing on efforts to combat human trafficking and modern slavery. “No one country can do it on its own.”

There is a lot of work to do: The number of reported victims around the world is far below the actual total, May said, noting that victims are rarely visible to society. What’s more, prosecution rates are “far too low.”

In Britain, May has introduced a bill in Parliament that would strengthen law enforcement’s ability to fight modern slavery, ensure perpetrators receive severe punishments, enhance protections and support for victims, and create a new position—an anti-slavery commissioner—charged with keeping multiple agencies accountable for enforcing human trafficking laws. She hopes the legislation, which if passed would be the first of its kind in Europe, will set an example for the rest of the continent’s nations to follow.

May served as the keynote speaker at the panel discussion, which was organized by Northeastern’s International Affairs program, WorldBoston, and the British Consulate General in Boston. Valentine Moghadam, director of the International Affairs program and a professor of sociology and international affairs, moderated the discussion. Prior to the panel discussion, attendees watched a screening of Not My Life, the first film to depict the cruel and dehumanizing practices of human trafficking and modern slavery on a global scale. It was filmed in a dozen countries across five continents.

May was appointed Home Secretary in May 2010 and is the Conservative MP of Maidenhead. She is responsible for Home Office business including homeland security, policing, and immigration, and she oversaw policing for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London.

Prior to Monday’s panel discussion, she toured Northeastern’s research labs in the Awareness and Localization of Explosives Related Threats, or ALERT Center, a multi-university Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence.

During her visit, May also met with President Joseph E. Aoun and other university leaders and researchers. They discussed Northeastern’s security research at the ALERT Center and the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security as well as the real-world experience students gain while working on co-op around the globe.

Professor Carey Rappaport, the ALERT Center's deputy director, describes the center's research projects to Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May during a tour on Monday.  Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Professor Carey Rappaport, the ALERT Center’s deputy director, describes the center’s research projects to Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May during a tour on Monday. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Monday’s panel also featured Amy Farrell, an associate professor in Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who studies how the criminal justice system responds to human trafficking and oversees a program to collect data on human trafficking investigations for the U.S. Department of Justice; and Christina Bain, director of the Initiative on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in the Babson College Social Innovation Lab and an affiliate of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School.

Farrell’s work focuses on the effectiveness of law enforcement’s response to human trafficking. She said some new data on prosecutions is promising but also shows that much more work remains; in one recent study of 12 counties nationwide, she and her colleagues found that 69 percent of cases were prosecuted. However, less than 10 percent of these offenders were prosecuted for trafficking offenses and were more often charged with lower level offenses.

“It’s very difficult to have trafficking prosecutions stick,” she said. “There’s a great deal of education that has to happen among prosecutors in the judiciary and the jury pools of the American public.” Farrell also noted that human trafficking is often framed as a criminal justice problem but said the issue is much more complex owing to other factors including economic instability and gender rights.

Bain, for her part, has focused on educating state judges about human trafficking laws and examining how technology is being used to fight human trafficking on a global level. At Babson, she studies how the business sector addresses human trafficking through leadership, training, and awareness.

“What we can do is train the next generation of business leaders to look when they go into the private sector at how they can address social problems like human trafficking,” said Bain, who is also co-leading a project for the World Economic Forum to examine the hospitality, financial, and other key business sectors’ work in this area.

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