New figures highlight failings of anti-slavery action in the UK

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  1. Report cites 'sustained increase' in suspected slavery over past nine years
  2. Once they escape exploitation victims are at the mercy of an immigration system that has been designed to be 'hostile'
  3. Limbo since High Court ruled against current UK legislation on trafficking

The UK government boasts “world-leading” anti-slavery legislation and has become increasingly 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 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 into the UK.

But several support groups WikiTribune consulted said that safeguarding against vulnerable people falling back into trafficking has been undermined by uncertainty, and there appears insufficient political will to tackle a growing problem.

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.

The Home Office attributes the continued rise to a more active approach to tackling the problem as a whole, 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 is indicative of 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 failing to support victims increases the likelihood that they will be forced back into irregular work and exploitation.

The focus on the financial burden of modern slavery is only valuable as it is indicative of how counter-productive some of the government’s decisions have been. A support worker at Kalayaan, a small charity supporting migrant domestic workers who suffer abuse, told WikiTribune they have been highlighting the economic inefficiency of the government’s attitude towards victims for over ten years.

“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

This uncertainty is making it increasingly difficult for support workers to make the case to victims to accept state-sponsored help in the form of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

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 ha 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 application to enter 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 are provided with 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 get a chance for this stage of the process unless it is endorsed by the government.

The charities WikiTribune spoke to were unconvinced the bill will gain the support it needs, pointing out that, despite the government’s repeated statements that modern slavery is a priority, the last year at least has been marked by inaction.

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 committee that oversees such legislaton, the Modern Slavery Strategy and Implementation Group, is supposed to meet quarterly, but has not convened since October 2017, while the position of Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has sat empty since the incumbent, stepped down 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 several 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.”

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