UK universities urged to be on high alert for human trafficking

Universities have been urged to be on high alert for human trafficking after suspected victims brought to Britain on student visas vanished from their courses and were found working in exploitative conditions hundreds of miles away.

In a recent case, Indian students at Greenwich, Chester and Teesside universities stopped attending lectures shortly after arriving in the UK.

They were later found in the care sector in Wales, where they were living in squalid conditions with up to 12 people to a three-bed flat, and were working “up to 80 hours a week, sometimes double-shifting”, for “way below” minimum wage.

“[The students’] attendance at university was low or nonexistent and in some cases other persons were logging on for them at lectures to give the impression they were in attendance,” the report said.

It comes after an Observer investigation uncovered widespread labour exploitation in care homes across Britain, with workers from India, the Philippines and countries in Africa found to have been charged up to £18,000 in illegal recruitment fees, and in some cases forced to work in conditions akin to debt bondage to repay money owed, with their wages intercepted and passports withheld.

In those cases, many of the suspected victims had come to Britain on legitimate skilled worker visas brought in by the Home Office to help plug shortages in the care sector.

The new evidence sheds light on other routes being exploited by traffickers and rogue agents in response to increased demand for cheap workers amid a worsening UK labour shortage.

In the case identified by the GLAA, the workers are understood to have had just 16 hours of online training and in most cases had not undergone criminal background checks, raising concerns about potential risks to elderly and disabled residents.

The care homes that hired them were reportedly unaware of their backgrounds because false information was provided to them by the suspected exploiters, who ran a staff agency.

In another case, students were found living in a property in Birmingham where they had had their passports confiscated and were forced to work in exploitative conditions, according to Unseen UK, which runs a modern slavery helpline.

The students, who also came from India and reportedly spoke little English, were allegedly forced to work 24-hour shifts without breaks and paid so little that they could not afford to eat, according to the charity. The case was referred to police.

Meri Åhlberg, research manager at Focus on Labour Exploitation, said abuse of people on student visas was a growing concern in Britain because of labour shortages.

The findings have led to calls for increased monitoring of student visas and warnings for universities to be on alert, with the GLAA saying they should monitor student applications, attendance and payment of fees to identify signs of modern slavery.