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An alternative approach to tackling human trafficking and modern slavery

Despite the difficulties in estimating what is largely a hidden crime, the latest figures suggest over 40 million people are currently suffering from slavery-like practices.

The challenge

The latest research suggests that slavery-like practices are big business and rife in many parts of the global economy. Despite the difficulties in estimating what is largely a hidden crime, the latest figures suggest over 40 million people are currently suffering from slavery-like practices (including forced labour, human trafficking and forced marriage) while 152 million are in child labour.

The failure of existing methods to curtail human trafficking and modern slavery has led to a search for alternative methods. Initiatives harnessing the power of social science and the arts and humanities at the University of Liverpool are making a proven and worthwhile contribution to changing the ideas and attitudes that contribute to the continuation of slavery-like practices that should be confined to the past.

The work of Dr Alex Balch and colleagues at the Centre for the Study of International Slavery (CSIS), a joint centre run with Liverpool's International Slavery Museum, answers a call from the United Nations that has put the eradication of modern slavery amongst its Sustainable Development Goals (target 8.7). He says we can’t legislate away the problems of exploitation, because it may be structural or culturally embedded in many countries and societies.

“You need to change people's thinking rather than just putting individuals in prison and criminalising certain acts,” says Balch, adding that past evidence shows that a purely punitive approach has not worked. “The more human-focused arts and humanities can help in transforming and addressing these issues.”

An alternative approach

Balch and colleagues look to build resilience in communities through education, arts-based methods, performance and the collection of voices and testimony from vulnerable communities, fully engaging them with the research and its design.

High impact work has included evaluating the activities of organisations such as City Hearts charity, which helps victims of slavery and trafficking to reintegrate into society in the longer term. Recommendations from this report were taken up by City Hearts and subsequently the Cooperative Group  launched the Bright Future project. This expands their work with City Hearts and offers paid work placements in their food business to people rescued from modern slavery. A second evaluation by Dr Balch is helping the group to scale up the programme to national level.

Research projects

These successes have attracted £2 million of investment from the UK’s Research Councils to extend these positive impacts to communities around the world.

In Ghana, one project will work with archaeologists to make a database of sites connected to the historic slave trade and connect this with community development work. This work will provide an opportunity to listen to communities and better understand how patterns of exploitation and vulnerability persist.

Another project in the Democratic Republic of Congo will engage local artists to create new artworks based on old colonialist photos, revisiting and reconsidering the mindsets that led -- and still lead -- to exploitative practices.

Finally, in Sierra Leone researchers including partners from the British Council will create educational resources for children to help them learn about the historic slave trade, an approach successfully used in Liverpool and pioneered by the International Slavery Museum.

A participatory approach is used throughout each project to define and measure impact and success. This means the communities themselves can set the framework and standards for evaluation. “A key objective of our work going forward is to push forward evaluation techniques, demonstrating the value of the research,” Balch explains.

Finally, a grant from the British Association and the UK’s Department for International Development will bring together Liverpool and a clutch of regional and global non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to trace the supply chains attached to cocoa and clothing that are associated with poor conditions for workers in a number of low income countries.

Balch says that Liverpool’s dark heritage and backdrop of leading scholarship at the University, particularly around the history of the slave trade, can now reap benefits when combined with the arts and humanities. “Interdisciplinarity is rewarded here, and the University of Liverpool has that necessary mix of scholarship and professional partnerships.”

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