LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed on Wednesday to put the UK at the forefront of global efforts to eradicate modern slavery, warning human traffickers: "We are coming after you."
May called for a greater urgency in tackling a borderless crime affecting an estimated 46 million people worldwide and generating $150 billion in illegal profits a year.
"To the victims of modern slavery: We will not ignore your plight," she said, speaking at London's Westminster Abbey. "We will not turn away. We will not shut our eyes and pretend your suffering does not exist.
"We will work tirelessly, relentlessly pursuing the perpetrators of these appalling crimes so that victims of slavery can go free. And my message to these criminals is simply this: We are coming after you."
Britain last year passed tough anti-slavery legislation introducing life sentences for traffickers and forcing companies to disclose what they are doing to make sure their supply chains are free from slavery.
Last month, May pledged to use 33.5 million pounds ($42 million) from the foreign aid budget to focus on combating slavery in countries which victims are known to be trafficked to Britain, where an estimated 11,700 people are enslaved.
"This is a global phenomenon that knows no geographical boundaries, crossing not just borders but over the internet," she said.
"So we need a radical domestic and international approach to target every aspect of this despicable trade and strip the slave drivers of the profit they make out of human suffering by putting them behind bars."
Kevin Hyland, Britain's first independent anti-slavery commissioner, called for increased partnership between governments, civil societies and the private sector to tackle the root cause of slavery.
He said everyone must accept responsibility for allowing "this abuse to become such a deep-rooted part of our world today".
"(From) the children working the mines of the Congo labouring to produce cobalt for smartphone batteries, the Nigerian girls raped and trafficked across the Sahara to work as sex slaves, (to) the eastern European men exploited in shocking conditions in car washes across the UK," he said.
"Now is the time to stop talking and start doing as we will be judged solely on our actions, not our words."
Sierra Leone footballer and survivor of modern slavery, Alhassan Bangura, 28, welcomed the UK government's commitment and said he hoped concrete measures will be taken to combat the practice.
Bangura, who once played in the Premier League for Watford, has spoken publicly about how he was trafficked to Britain at the age of 14 with attempts to force him to work as a prostitute. He managed to escape and sought asylum in the UK.
"I can't say enough has been done so far, but this is a good platform. The prime minister is here backing us to tackle it and hopefully we can get somewhere," Bangura told Thomson Reuters Foundation after the service.
(Reporting by Temesghen Debesai; Writing by Timothy Large; Editing by Astrid Zweynert and Belinda Goldsmith)