UK spy agencies will be used to combat modern slavery

Refugees and migrants jump off a boat as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 26, 2015. © Giorgos Moutafis
British intelligence agencies are set to join the fight against modern slavery and human trafficking for the first time, Theresa May announced at the UN General Assembly in New York as she urged world leaders to band together to “rid the world of this evil.”

The heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ are setting up a new anti-slavery taskforce, which will begin work next month, May said on Monday night in New York.

Both MI6 and GCHQ will be given additional resources to disrupt networks working in countries most involved in the slave trade, such as Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam. Meanwhile, MI5 will work with police within the UK to facilitate evidence gathering and prosecutions against people smugglers and those who benefit from the trade.

“We owe it to the innocent men, women and children who are being tricked into a life of hard labor and abuse to rid our world of this evil,” May said.

The new taskforce is intended to serve as a model for other countries, the prime minister said as she called for international cooperation including intelligence sharing and joint investigations.

“Just as it was Britain that took an historic stand to ban slavery two centuries ago, I am determined that the UK will once again lead the way in defeating modern slavery and preserving the freedoms and values that have defined our country for generations.”

A senior government official added: “The intelligence agencies have great expertise and experience of tracking criminals across borders and stopping them doing harm. Now we need to put those skills to good use in this fight — better understanding what’s happening in source countries, the gangs involved and where there are people suffering so we can help them.”

Most recent Home Office figures indicate that there are between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. Victims include women forced into prostitution, imprisoned domestic staff and severely underpaid workers in fields, factories and fishing boats.

PM May announced in July that an additional £33 million (US$43 million) would be earmarked from the aid budget to fund anti-slavery initiatives in high-risk countries.