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Romani police officer: Roma are both perpetrators and victims of modern-day slavery

7.4.2015 21:55
Petr Torák
Petr Torák

Petr Torák is a Romani police officer originally from the Czech Republic who has worked for almost 10 years in England investigating human trafficking. At the end of March he attended a conference in Prague on the topic of "modern-day slavery" along with other British and Czech experts.  

News server Romea.cz interviewed him together with Klára Skřivánková of the Anti-Slavery International organization after the conference. Torák said the conference served primarily to unite the approach of the Czech Republic with that of Great Britain in combating the exploiters involved in human trafficking.

"The new trend that has been more evident since 2014, and which is confirmed not just by our experience in Britain but also by ministries and nonprofit organizations in the Czech Republic, is that forced labor is a rapidly spreading phenomenon," Torák said. "Compared to previous years, the number of men who are victims of human trafficking is predominant. Previously this was primarily about young girls being forced into prostitution."  

Worldwide there are millions of victims of such abuse, but this definitely is not a faraway problem on the "other side of the world" that does not concern "us" - the number of Czech and Slovak victims, including Romani victims from both countries, is rapidly rising. The Czech Republic is even among the top 10 "sending countries" according to the number of victims brought into Great Britain.  

British police keep track of nationality

"Until recently, police officers didn't really know what was going on in this area. One officer, for example, noted the case of three Czech men who came into the station to report exploitation and sexual abuse, but found no evidence a felony had been committed and sent them back to the exploiter's home. We didn't learn about it until six months later, and only then was I able to contact the victims and begin to solve the case," Torák said.  

Today, however, he says a change can be sensed. "There are various trainings being held on how to investigate human trafficking, which has been categorized as one of the most serious felonies there is. Also in the Czech Republic human trafficking, because of its seriousness, is now being handled by the Organized Crime Detection Unit," Torák said.

Unlike Czech police, however, British police are tasked with also keeping track of both the ethnicity and the nationality of the persons they encounter while on duty. If someone doesn't want to reveal that information, the officer has the option of noting what he thinks the person's ethnicity and nationality probably are.

"Police in England are obliged to register the ethnicity of everyone they come into contact with while on duty. Every officer has a log for recording case information. From my records, for example, we can see that since 2007 I have been in contact with 127 people who were victims of human trafficking and that approximately 25 % of them were Romani people from the Czech Republic or Slovakia," Torák said.  

He also pointed out that human trafficking never exists in isolation, but is linked to other crimes, and is frequently associated with fraud in particular. An exploiter will often register a victim with local authorities in order to subsequently steal any welfare benefits awarded to the person by following their bank account activity and withdrawing money from it; the victim's stolen identity is then easily exploited for taking out loans or for purchasing electronics and other products on installment plans.

The typical victim

According to Torák, middle-aged men who have no support in their country of origin, no family or social network, are those he most frequently encounters in the role of forced labor victims - often such men are living on the street without a job or prospects that their situation might change for the better. This is why they often agree to offers of easy money, secure work and accommodation, sometimes only working in exchange for meals.  

"Some victims work for their exploiters for a month, a year, or five years. It varies. They give all of their pay to the exploiter. These people have frequently suffered long before they became the victims of this exploitation, and that makes it possible for them to have the feeling for at least a little bit, when they are first recruited, that they have actually been liberated, they are relieved - suddenly they have a place to sleep, work clothing, and food," Torák said, adding that,"the victims frequently tell themselves that they will pay off the flight that was bought for them in six months and then they will be their own masters, but over time they determine that if they don't speak up, they will be working under those conditions for the rest of their lives. Then they turn to the police or to some helping organization."  

Torák has also handled cases of exploited Romani people. "As far as Romani victims go, most of them are young men, frequently recruited straight from a ghetto or settlement," he says, noting that Romani people are also among the ranks of the exploiters.

Klára Skřivánková, who works for the British nonprofit organization Anti-Slavery International, which mainly endeavors to impact the political and strategic level of this issue, confirms that. She warns that automatic trust in people who share one's own origins or are from one's own environment - often from one's own family - does not always pay off.

Skřivánková says the life of a person who has become the victim of exploitation can be controlled and governed for a very long time by those who are frequently also the victim's only connection to the outside world. "After being freed, the victims must cut their ties with these people who were, in their difficult moments, the only people on whom they could rely to give them contacts, information, etc. To start over is very often an impossible task for them," she says.  

She believes the fact that employment agencies are not regulated enough is a problem. "In Britain employment agencies are minimally regulated, and just in a few sectors. Indirect labor brokering is a big risk," she warns.

Help is possible

Both Skřivánková and Torák emphasized that one of the basic tools for helping people in this area is prevention. However, their options for undertaking prevention of forced labor are very limited.  

"People who are homeless and without job prospects essentially will always take an exploiter's offer. I think that frequently they even know what they are getting into, but at that moment, they perceive it as the only possible liberation from the situation in which they find themselves," Torák says.  

He has not, however, lost hope that human trafficking can be combated:  "We are doing our best to undertake prevention in all institutions - in the schools, in health care systems, with the aid of social networking sites, directly in communities, and when we can't succeed in preventing people from becoming victims, then we do our best to help them at the earliest possible phase of their exploitation. We need to help them before the victim becomes too indebted to the exploiter, or before physical or psychological harm is caused."

In Britain something called the National Referral Mechanism makes it possible for trafficking victims to come to terms with the system of care available to them after they are freed from their exploiters. Within the framework of this mechanism, nonprofit organizations provide victims with aid - in addition to psychosocial support, they help them find what most victims of modern slavery long for most, a normal job under normal conditions for normal pay.


Jitka Votavová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Británie, Human trafficking, Policie, Kriminalita



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