Europe / Europe / Foreign Policy

The May Doctrine: Ending Modern Slavery

British Prime Minister Theresa May at the European Union Council meeting in Brussels.

British Prime Minister Theresa May at a European Union Council meeting in Brussels.

“The May Doctrine” is a three-part series discussing the three major planks of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s new foreign policy grand strategy. This second part analyzes the second plank: addressing the global mass migration crisis. Find the first part of the series addressing terrorism here and the second part addressing migration here.

British Prime Minister Theresa May confidently stated that, “When the British people voted to leave the EU, they did not vote to turn inwards or walk away from any of our partners in the world.” Her recently announced internationalist foreign policy doctrine ensures that Britain will be a proactive force in the world by addressing the issues of global terrorism, mass migration, and modern slavery.

The third plank of her doctrine addresses modern slavery, serving as a strategic compassionate counterbalance to her more realist approach toward addressing the mass migration crisis. Human trafficking is estimated to generate $150 billion in illegal profits every year. An estimated 46 million people worldwide are affected, including an estimated over 10,000 in Britain. May’s plan to combat modern slavery dictates that Britain will lead by example, push for further integration of international law enforcement networks, and prioritize foreign aid toward high-risk trafficking countries.

Great Britain Leading the World by Example

In September, May directed her government to be the first in the world to integrate every relevant department into a taskforce for modern slavery. With an estimated 10,000-13,000 potential victims in the UK, May pledged £33.5 million to fight modern slavery. Most victims live in servitude and work in nail bars, car washes, farms, factories, and as domestic servants for foreigners. At an October 12 event in London, the Prime Minister sternly notified human traffickers that, “We are coming after you.”

When May previously served as Home Secretary, she introduced the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the first of its kind in Europe. The act increased the maximum jail term for human traffickers from 14 years to a life sentence and gave courts in England and Wales new powers to restrict the activities of suspected traffickers. The law also makes it compulsory for UK companies to ensure their supply chains are free of modern slavery. The new law led to a 40 percent increase in the number of victims referred for support. The Salvation Army oversaw a fivefold increase of victims seeking help, from 378 persons between July 2011-July 2012 and 2,013 between July 2015-July 2016. The increase can reflect both an increase of people exploited as well as the number of persons seeking help as awareness of modern slavery ticks up in Britain. Recently, cab drivers in London have been recruited to assist police in identifying potential victims and traffickers through an anonymous helpline or smartphone app.

There is still much work to do domestically. Between 2015 and 2016, only 118 charges were brought against 3,146 allegations of human trafficking. While that is a notable rise of 19 percent from the precious year, chronic weaknesses remain in crime recording according to the Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland. Only 28 percent of referrals were recorded as a crime, and when an incident is not recorded as a crime, no investigation is launched. For instance, in Scotland, only 13 crimes were recorded out of 154 potential victims. However, Northern Ireland recorded 100 percent of referrals under human trafficking and exploitation offences, demonstrating that proper widespread recording and investigations are achievable goals.

Despite some shortcomings, Theresa May is moving Britain in the right direction to lead the world by example.

Coordinating With International Law Enforcement Networks

May affirmed her commitment to utilizing international law enforcement networks at the UN General Assembly in September “to track these criminals down, wherever they are in the world, and put them behind bars where they belong.” Similar networks exist for counter-terrorism, cyber security, drug trafficking, and intelligence sharing. May is pushing the world to consider human trafficking as an equally pressing transnational security issue. Transnational trafficking networks cannot be disrupted without transnational law enforcement networks.

The government chose to “opt-in” to new Brussels rules for Europol that will take effect in May 2017. Europol is one example of a crucial international network for tracing missing people, investigating human traffickers, and sharing vital intelligence across borders. Britain has been a member since its creation in 1998, and the current government signature implies a willingness to remain even after Brexit.

Directing Aid Toward High-Risk Countries

May designated £5 million from Britain’s foreign aid budget to focus on high-risk countries for trafficking to the UK to reduce the vulnerability of potential victims. Nigeria, Vietnam, Romania, Poland, and Albania will receive the bulk of this aid. In a similar proactive approach to addressing the root causes of terrorism and mass migration, May’s modern slavery policies similarly aim to halt human trafficking at the start of the problem.

The Compassion Counterbalance

May’s plan to assert Britain as the world leader in combating human trafficking and ending modern slavery is a strategic counterbalance to her refugee plan. May’s proposal that asylum seekers should migrate no further than the “first arrival” safe countries they reach, rather than continue traveling through Europe, has been met with criticism from the left for a lack of compassion. By highlighting Britain’s leading role in ending modern slavery, May’s politically savvy strategy balances out her holistic foreign policy.


Bucking the tide of isolationism, protectionism, and inward withdrawal, Theresa May is skillfully seizing upon the anger and populism that led to Brexit to forge a new proactive and internationalist path forward for Britain. From fighting global terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab to laying out a clear framework for addressing mass migration and asserting Britain as a world leader in the fight to end modern slavery, Theresa May serves as an example for Western leaders of how to channel populist frustrations into policies that adequately address root problems rather than ferment xenophobia, racism, and inward withdrawal.


Photo Credit: Number 10

One thought on “The May Doctrine: Ending Modern Slavery

  1. Well written article. After reading a Bobroske’s essay I always feel I am getting updated and educated

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