Photo by Andrés Canchón

Why prevention is better than cure in the fight against modern slavery

23rd January 2024 | From our team

The Clewer Initiative

There is an often-quoted parable that tells of a man and woman fishing by a river. Suddenly they spot a woman in the river who is struggling for life. The couple pull her out.

Then another person appears, also close to drowning, and again they pull them out. This happens all afternoon and the couple get more and more tired from constantly rescuing people from the river. Eventually they think: “we need to go upstream and find out why so many people are falling in the river.”

When they go upstream, they discover that people are being drawn to the edge of a cliff to look at the river but there is no safe way to do this. People keep falling in. The couple work with the local community to build a fence to keep people from falling in the river. Occasionally, a few still fall in but it is a lot less than before.

As this story demonstrates, investing upstream in prevention rather than downstream in intervention is often wiser and more effective. This philosophy is the essence of public health.

Photo by Blake Cheek

Three reasons why prevention is better than cure

We have adopted this “public health” approach to fighting modern slavery. We believe that 'prevention is better than cure' – first and foremost because once someone is embroiled in modern slavery it is extremely difficult to get them out.

Secondly, there are huge retrafficking rates where victims return to slavery. Finally, the damage done to a victim of modern slavery is so long-lasting and devastating that if there is any way of preventing the situation in the first place, that is a far better scenario than focusing alone on victim rescue, recovery and support.

One challenge, however, with prioritising upstream prevention is that the results are not easily measured. We will never know how many people have been protected from criminal gangs as a result of churches caring for and building a preventative safety network around them.

Addressing the root causes upstream

In the parable, the couple investigate what is causing so many people to fall into the river. This is an important step in upstream prevention. Bishop Alastair Redfern has recently written about some of the root causes and drivers of modern slavery. Many of the issues driving slavery, such as climate change, mass migration and increasingly sophisticated criminal networks, are difficult to tackle at a local level. Others, however, such as the desire in all of us for cheap goods and services, the globalisation of indifference and the increasing number of vulnerable people in our society, are factors that the church can be challenged to address.

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The role of churches in upstream prevention

There is huge need to mobilise churches to care for the most vulnerable in society and help build resilient communities where criminal gangs cannot get a foothold. This preventative, public health element to our work is vital (and at the heart of our community resilience and mobilisation training courses) as it recognises that vulnerability in both individuals and communities can lead (often by increments) to modern slavery and exploitation.

We have been encouraged by many in the statutory sector to pursue this goal of creating a preventative safety network for people in danger of slipping into modern slavery and exploitation. They have often stressed that this is a big gap and something that they do not have the resources to do. However, it is something that the church can be mobilised to achieve. Because the Church of England and other church denominations are present in all communities and at the heart of many, we are in a unique position to pioneer this upstream prevention.

Prevention is better than cure – if the sophisticated criminal networks see an army of volunteers who know about their evil tactics and are mobilised to report, they may be less keen to target and groom victims. We want to build a society where modern slavery is not tolerated and where the presence of it is swiftly identified and reported. Investing in this upstream work is our daily mission – please get behind us and join the cause!

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