By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, March 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police and judges in Britain must do more to seize human traffickers' illicit gains and ensure that victims receive financial compensation under the country's anti-slavery law, politicians said in a review of the legislation on Thursday.
The 2015 Modern Slavery Act enabled courts to award cash to victims provided that assets can be seized from traffickers.
Yet no compensation was granted to victims under the law between March 2015 and December 2017 - representing the latest available state data - and there have been anecdotal reports of just two reparation orders made since, said three lawmakers.
Despite being hailed as a leader in the global anti-slavery drive, Britain last July announced a probe into its law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive companies to spot and stop forced labour, or help victims.
"Compensation for victims ought to be at the forefront of the Court's mind," read the report, which said there was limited awareness around such reparations in the criminal justice system and that judges should be reminded to consider the legal power.
Police and prosecutors in Britain are increasingly seeking to pursue "victimless" prosecutions - to spare survivors of trafficking further trauma - but this trend could make it more difficult to ensure victims are compensated, the lawmakers said.
About 179 people were prosecuted and 37 convicted under the Modern Slavery Act in 2017, up from 80 prosecutions and one conviction in 2016, the latest government figures show.
Law enforcement should remain in contact with victims throughout investigations and trials, and inform them of the prospect of compensation, said the review, which was jointly written by Frank Field, Maria Miller and Elizabeth Butler-Sloss.
The police must also ensure they consider criminal gains in modern slavery cases and make better use of their powers to identify and freeze suspects' assets, the politicians said.
"This will help to prevent perpetrators dissipating assets and ensure that there could be funds available post-conviction ... (for) victims," they said, urging the government to ensure financial investigations are resourced as a priority.
CRIME STILL PAYS
A spokesman for Britain's Home Office (interior ministry) said it would consider the review's recommendations and consult with other government departments where appropriate.
"We established the Independent Modern Slavery Act Review to ensure that the United Kingdom continues to drive the response to Modern Slavery," he said.
Even in the rare cases where victims do get compensation, the amounts are too low or end up recouped by the legal aid system, according to Tamara Barnett, who works to improve services for victims at the Human Trafficking Foundation. "This failure is a disaster not just for individual survivors and their ability to rebuild their lives, but because it means modern slavery is unlikely to halt" she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Even if traffickers are caught and convicted, their crime still effectively 'pays'," Barnett said in emailed comments.
Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation - a figure 10 times higher than a government estimate from 2013.
At least 7,000 suspected victims of slavery were uncovered in Britain last year, up a third on 2017, according to data that activists said last month raised concerns about the government's ability to support a growing number of survivors. (Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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