Abstract – International law, national policymaking, and the health of trafficked people in the UK

Siân Oram, Cathy Zimmerman, Brad Adams, and Joanna Busza

Health and Human Rights 13/2

Published December 2011


Human trafficking has been recognized both by the international community and many individual states around the world as a serious violation of human rights. Trafficking is associated with extreme violence and a range of physical, mental, and sexual health consequences. Despite the extreme nature of the harm caused by human trafficking, harm is not a concept that is integrated in the definition of trafficking or in policies to address the health of trafficked people. This paper examines the United Kingdom’s response to human trafficking as a case study to explore national policy responses to the health needs of trafficked people and assess the willingness of UK authorities to implement international and regional law in securing trafficked people’s health rights.

Between 2007 and 2010, data on the development of the UK response to trafficking were obtained through 46 interviews with key trafficking policy stakeholders and health care providers, participant observation at 41 policy-relevant events, and document collection. Framework analysis was used to analyze the data.

International and regional instruments specifically protect the health rights of trafficked people. Yet, UK engagement with trafficked people’s health rights has been limited to granting, under certain circumstances, free access to health care services. Changes to trafficked people’s entitlements to free health care occurred following the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, but had limited impact on trafficked people’s access to medical care.

International and regional instruments that provide specific or mandated instruction about states’ health care obligations can be effective in furthering the health rights of vulnerable migrant groups. The UK government has demonstrated limited appetite for exceeding its minimum obligations to provide for the health of trafficked people, however, and key principles for promoting the health rights of trafficked people are yet to be fulfilled.