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The UK government is undermining decades of anti-slavery efforts

Rather than improving support for survivors, the UK is moving backwards in its response to modern slavery

Kate Roberts
21 October 2022, 11.29am

Last week, an update to the UK government’s website showed that responsibility for ‘modern slavery’ had been taken away from the minister for safeguarding and placed under the minister for immigration in the Home Office. It is now listed under “illegal migration and asylum” for which this office is responsible.

This recategorisation is the latest step in recent governments’ efforts to re-frame trafficking and slavery as, above all else, an immigration matter that should be dealt with through stronger immigration enforcement. Both Priti Patel, home secretary under Boris Johnson, and Suella Braverman, until recently home secretary under the former prime minister Liz Truss, justified these efforts with unevidenced claims that the system is being abused. Their goal appears to have been further restricting trafficked people’s access to the already limited modern slavery identification and support system, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

Muddying the waters

Despite statements from the Home Office and its inclusion in the UK’s recent Nationality and Borders Act, modern slavery is not primarily an immigration issue. Not only is it wrong to suggest that harsher border policing will stop trafficking – it will increase it. Whilst restricted or undocumented immigration status and the UK’s hostile environment for immigration can and do combine to facilitate exploitation, and thus some people enter the NRM for reasons linked to their immigration status, the majority of people are there for reasons which that have little to do with immigration. The Home Office’s own statistics clearly demonstrate this. The majority of people referred to the NRM between mid-2017 and end-2021 were UK nationals. And in the first quarter of 2022, 79% of UK nationals referred were children.

Consecutive British governments have steadfastly ignored these facts in order to advance their agenda. The UK published its ‘New Plan for Immigration’ in March 2021, and despite being an immigration policy document it included a section on “supporting victims of modern slavery”. This asserts that people are claiming to be victims of modern slavery to prevent or delay removal or deportation:

“Over recent years we have seen an alarming increase in the number of illegal migrants, including Foreign National Offenders (FNOs) and those who pose a national security risk to our country, seeking modern slavery referrals – enabling them to avoid immigration detention and frustrate removal from our country.”

The plan, like other statements from Home Office officials, tries to give substance to this assertion by citing two key statistics: NRM referrals have been increasing in recent years, and the large majority of referrals result in a positive trafficking decision. The implication it’s hoping to convey is that rising numbers of NRM referrals and positive NRM decisions alone suggest the system isn’t working as it should. Again, the plan states:

“NRM referrals more than doubled between 2017 and 2019 from 5,141 to 10,627. In 2019, of those referred into the NRM after being detained within the UK (totalling 1,949), 89% received a positive RG decision and 98% were released. More recently, child rapists, people who pose a threat to national security and illegal migrants who have travelled to the UK from safe countries have sought modern slavery referrals, which have prevented and delayed their removal or deportation.”

Yet sexual and terrorism offences are explicitly excluded from the UK’s modern slavery defence (section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act), and the government has refused to provide any evidence on the defence being misused. Furthermore, increasing NRM referrals and high rates of positive decisions are what the UK government set out to achieve when it established the NRM in 2009 and passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015.

Back then officials knew that the vast majority of modern slavery and trafficking cases in the UK were not being picked up by authorities. The Home Office estimated in 2014 that there were between 10,000- 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. Two years later the Global Slavery Index estimated there to be 136,000 victims in the UK on any given day in 2016. Because of this, officials and civil society engaged in significant awareness raising around trafficking, modern slavery and the NRM to bring more of these cases to light.

The number of identified victims was always supposed to grow.

In 2010, a bill passed through Parliament establishing 18 October as Anti-Slavery Day in the UK. The Modern Slavery Helpline was set up in 2014. Section 52 of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act placed a statutory duty on public authorities to notify the Home Office about potential victims of slavery, including making referrals to the NRM. In short, the number of identified victims was always supposed to grow. That being said, the 2019 figure of 10,627 NRM referrals is still only a small proportion of estimated numbers.

So despite continued rhetoric around migrants “abusing the system”, it remains a fact that over 90% of people referred to the NRM from immigration detention are confirmed by the Home Office to be victims of trafficking. The failure is not the increase in referrals, but that victims of trafficking are being detained in the first place. And it appears that the Home Office is intent on making the NRM a victim of its own modest success.

The dangers of re-framing modern slavery

Everyone who experiences exploitation in the UK should be able to report abuse and access vital protections. This is a basic issue of safeguarding, as well as fairness, justice and public safety.

People are more likely to be exploited if they are less able to seek help, and one way to undermine that ability is by threatening those coming forward with the possibility of immigration detention. Doing so makes people more vulnerable. This is why it is vital that victims feel safe to come forward. They must know that they will be listened to as victims, without prejudgement or discrimination based on their immigration status. It is also why there must be a clear separation of powers between law enforcement and immigration enforcement. Victims must be able to report crimes securely.

The inaccurate framing of the UK’s modern slavery systems as “abused” by people who “falsely take advantage of the National Referral Mechanism in order to frustrate their removal” is an attempt to justify measures which restrict access to these systems in ways which undermine all potential victims. For example, these baseless claims were the starting point for calls for unrealistic standards regarding disclosure, proof, and how victims should present and behave. They laid the groundwork for inserting clauses in the Nationality and Borders Act (2022) that make it possible to disqualify victims from protection if they are considered to have claimed to be a victim of slavery or human trafficking in “bad faith” or to be a “threat to public order”. Another clause means that the “late provision of information”, or not disclosing abuse fast enough, can undermine credibility. Similarly, claims that the system is easy to game were used to raise the threshold for identification, narrow the definition for exploitation, and move away from alignment with international law.

Why would anyone choose to engage with a system which starts from the assumption that they are lying?

More broadly, framing slavery as something which people lie about to gain an advantage will affect the way in which victims are treated, and categorising slavery as an immigration matter risks changing the understanding of who can be trafficked. It makes it less likely that UK nationals will be identified, or that they will engage with a system that does not seem relevant to them.

It will also discourage people who have been trafficked from coming forward or consenting to a referral whatever their nationality or immigration status. Rather than entering a system that they know understands the messiness of disclosure, victims will understandably fear that they will be viewed with suspicion, that their stories will be picked apart, and that they will be vilified. Why would anyone choose to engage with a system which starts from the assumption that they are lying? The result will be people remaining in exploitation, or leaving and then re-entering exploitation, horrified that when their exploiters said they wouldn’t be believed, they were right.

Abused by the system

We’re already seeing signs of this happening. Despite an increase in overall numbers of people entering the NRM, adults who are being identified as victims are increasingly fearful of consenting to a referral. This highlights the importance of victims knowing that they can trust the system and the dangers of the UK’s current rhetoric which undermines this. When victims are framed as falsely claiming to have been trafficked, this undermines their ability to come forward, with serious implications for the work of law enforcement and for justice and wider public safety.

In 2021, there was a 47% increase in ‘Duty to Notify’ reports compared to 2020. These are filed by statutory first responders when an adult is identified as potentially trafficked yet does not consent to a referral (children do not need to consent). This is likely to be an under representation; non-statutory first responders are not required to complete Duty to Notify forms.

When you listen to survivors this is no surprise. The NRM is rife with uncertainty and delays. Survivors are expected to enter a system which keeps them in limbo for an unspecified time period – frequently over a year – during which they are not granted permission to work and cannot realistically move on with their lives. Even survivors who have permission to work may in practice be prevented from doing so, due to the need to remain eligible for legal aid to support the multiple cases resulting from their trafficking.

Nor does the NRM guarantee access to justice as the UK’s legal advice system is ‘on the brink’. The legal advice charity ATLEU found that 90% of support workers helping survivors report that they had struggled to find legal advisors for their clients in the past year, with almost half reporting delays of six months or longer. Grants of compensation are low and only a minority of people found to have been trafficked are granted any leave to remain, with just 8% of applications granted in 2021, despite the risks of entering the identification system and being seen to cooperate with the authorities.

The Modern Slavery Bill

While it feels like the ink is still drying on the Nationality and Borders Act the UK has committed to a new Modern Slavery Bill. This is at a time when the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner role is still vacant, the UK’s review of the 2014 Modern Slavery Strategy is still pending, and the unevidenced rhetoric of ‘false slavery claims’ suggests a continued intention to reduce the number of people entering the NRM. .

None of this bodes well for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. Rather than further narrowing and reducing access to support for survivors, as the Home Office is likely to push for, this bill should be an opportunity to address the gaps in the UK’s prevention, identification, support and recovery work. For example, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report 2022 highlighted the need for the UK to provide a “clear route to residency for foreign victims and ensure potential foreign victims who are referred into the NRM can work”.

With the recent resignation of Braverman and now Liz Truss, there is the opportunity for UK government to change course. The UK would do well to use the forthcoming Modern Slavery Strategy and Modern Slavery Bill to reassess its approach. This is a time to build on learning to date and listen to people with lived experience of modern slavery and the UK’s support systems, first responders and other professionals, and our international allies. And it is a time to create systems that survivors can trust and that prevent exploitation from happening in the first place.

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