The UK government boasts “world-leading” anti-slavery legislation and has become effective at identifying victims. But critics and victim support workers say UK laws, including the “hostile environment” policy, are undermining this work and increasing the chance of victims falling back into exploitation.
According to a Home Office report released July 30, there has been “a consistent and sustained increase in the number of potential victims of modern slavery identified in the UK since 2009.” The Home Office is the government department responsible for immigration and security.
The government emphasises that its anti-slavery legislation, particularly the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, are among the best in the world, and that it has invested in preventing trafficking. However a court decision earlier in 2018 found laws on trafficking were inadequate, and an interim set of measures replacing them have not given clarity or confidence.
Support groups WikiTribune consulted said uncertainty has undermined safeguarding against vulnerable people falling back into trafficking, and there appears insufficient political will to do anything about it.
New figures highlight a system under strain
According to the Home Office, between 10,000 and 13,000 people annually are identified as victims of modern slavery in the UK, at a combined economic burden of up to £4.3 billion ($5.5bn).
The Home Office attributes the continued rise to a more active approach to tackling the problem, with more effective identification of victims key. This is supported by the Salvation Army, the biggest provider of victim support services. But the financial impact is no surprise to people working in this field, who say the rising cost indicates an ineffectual system that does little to address the causes of exploitation.
“We hear of individuals slipping back into exploitation to avoid destitution and even being re- identified through the NRM,” said Kate Roberts of the Human Trafficking Foundation. “Of course identification as a victim alone does nothing to address the underlying vulnerabilities which contributed to someone being trafficked nor address the damage done by the trafficking.”
Kalayaan, a small charity providing support for overseas domestic workers who are the subject of exploitation, warned the government in 2007 that failure to support victims increases the likelihood that they will be forced back into irregular work and exploitation.
Focusing on the cost of modern slavery reveals how counter-productive some government decisions have been. A Kalayaan support worker told WikiTribune it has been highlighting the economic inefficiency of the government’s attitude towards victims for over a decade.
“Kalayaan’s statistics show how removal of domestic workers rights through the 2012 immigration rules resulted in an increase in reported exploitation and abuse,” said Roberts. “This high cost of domestic servitude supports the already compelling moral arguments for reinstating rights so workers are less likely to be exploited in the first place.”
Slipping through the cracks
Persuading victims to accept state-sponsored help in the form of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) becomes harder in this environment.
On the contrary, victims of human trafficking are often scared of gaining state help, for fear of being punished for being in the country illegally, says Phillipa Roberts, of Hope For Justice.
The government’s treatment of victims of trafficking has been challenged several times in recent years, and in February the High Court found that its legislation on “leave to remain” for victims is incompatible with a European anti-trafficking convention.
Part of this issue, says Phillipa Roberts, is that the rise in victims has coincided with broad cuts to legal aid. Vitcims of trafficking do not have immigration status, and once they escape their exploitation they are at the mercy of an immigration system that has been designed to be “hostile.”
“The key point is if victims don’t have that clear entitlement in law many are slipping through the system,” said Phillipa Roberts. “Our experience is that in terms of this client base every system is fractured and not working to the benefit of these victims.”
“You can have situations where a victim has left the system, they’ve got a job, but at that point they might start dealing with mental health issues … lose their jobs, lose their housing and fall off a cliff drop,” she said.
Cuts to legal aid, and the resulting lack of advice for victims, has coincided with a sharp fall in the number of successful applications for the NRM, according to figures released by the National Crime Agency. In 2017, the ratio of successful “conclusive grounds” decisions to applicants was 13 percent, as opposed to 37 percent in 2015, and 48 percent in 2013.
A strategy demanding political will
A Conservative member of parliament’s upper chamber, Lord McColl, has proposed a bill that would ensure victims receive a year-long residence permit and support from caseworkers.
McColl’s bill is waiting for a second reading in parliament, but it is unlikely to pass without government endorsement.
The charities WikiTribune spoke to were unconvinced the bill will gain the needed support, pointing out that, despite repeated statements that modern slavery is a priority, government inaction has marked the past year.
After the High Court found, in February, that UK legislation did not meet the standards set out in the European Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, the legislation was suspended, but has not been updated, with “interim” guidelines in place since. Support workers and identified victims have also been left in limbo by uncertainty over when reforms to NRM, proposed last December, will take effect and what this will entail, other than a cut to subsistence payments.
The parliamentary committee that oversees such legislation, the Modern Slavery Strategy and Implementation Group, is supposed to meet quarterly, but has not convened since October 2017. The position of Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has sat empty since the incumbent stepped down last May due to uncertainty over his role.
The “hostile environment” policy, spearheaded by Prime Minister Theresa May when she was Home Secretary in an effort to discourage illegal immigration, has been blamed by both politicians and charities for creating uncertainty.
Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey has written that these policies, including measures making it harder for undocumented migrants to access employment and public services “make it harder for victims to come forward, whether to report crimes or seek medical help.”
The charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) said earlier this year that fear of being detained in immigration detention center, or being deported to the place from which they were trafficked and abused, is making it harder for victims to escape abuse.
The Home Office has become increasingly effective at identifying victims, and the number of people entering the NRM continues to rise. But lack of follow-through means that the cost and numbers could keep going up.
“[Identification] should mean something,” said Phillipa Roberts. “Support from NRM into local authority assistance and care.”