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12 December 2014, 12:54
Criminals involved in human trafficking could face life imprisonment under new legislation introduced by the Scottish Government.
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said there could be as many as 1,000 cases of such crimes in Scotland, as he revealed details of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill.
The Bill will create a specific offence of human trafficking for the first time as well as increase the maximum penalty for offenders to life imprisonment.
Mr Matheson's predecessor, Kenny MacAskill, announced in March that the legislation would be introduced to build on work by Labour MSP Jenny Marra, who had proposed her own Bill.
In September, the National Crime Agency said it had identified 55 potential victims of human trafficking in Scotland last year.
Mr Matheson said: "We suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg.
"There are estimates from the Home Office that there could be something between 10,000-13,000 people within the UK who are the subject of human trafficking and exploitation and if we take Scotland's pro rata share of that, that would indicate that there could be around 1,000 cases in Scotland.''
He added: "There's increasing evidence to show that the level of human trafficking and exploitation is increasing and we need to make sure that we've got robust measures in place in order to tackle this issue.
"On average just now you could face up to 14 years imprisonment so we're now sending out a very clear signal to those who may be involved in this type of crime that we are taking it extremely seriously.''
The Bill seeks to give adult victims of trafficking the same access to support and help as children and provide guidance to prosecutors dealing with cases where such people have been forced into committing crime.
It will also provide for a Scottish Anti-Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy aimed at increasing public awareness, providing training for front-line staff and engaging with businesses to help spot the signs of potential trafficking and exploitation.
Speaking as the Bill was introduced to the Scottish Parliament, Mr Matheson added: "Victims can face horrendous suffering and there is no place for it in modern society.
"There is no doubt in my mind that introducing this new legislation is the right thing to do. While the focus of this Bill is very much on the needs of victims, under these proposals those who seek to peddle human misery will also face the toughest possible penalties.''
Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham said: "This is a positive measure, empowering officers to perform their duties under specific, simplified powers.
"We particularly welcome the enhanced focus on the needs of victims and the additional support the Bill presents.
"The measures proposed, together with the duty to develop an Anti-Human Trafficking Strategy, will ensure that victims are offered far better protection and make Scotland a truly hostile environment for traffickers.''
Fishing and agriculture have been identified as industries that could be vulnerable to a small number of criminal employers who exploit workers, the Scottish Government said.
David Dickens, chief executive of the Fishermen's Mission, said: "We see and deal with the results of poor practices and are pleased to see that the issues are being addressed in Scotland.''
Robert McCrea, chief executive of Migrant Help, a charity which helps victims of human trafficking, said: "The Scottish Government's approach has always been focused on support of victims and their integration or reintegration post care.
"We believe this should be a vital part of the overarching strategy as it places victims at the heart of the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery and also plays a significant role in reducing the risk of re-trafficking.