By Sonia Elks
LONDON, March 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A British anti-slavery group filed a landmark "super-complaint" to a police watchdog on Monday warning that officers are hampering prosecutions by treating slavery victims as criminal suspects or failing to make them feel safe during interviews.
Traumatised survivors often refuse to cooperate with police or fail to report their abusers in the first place as a result of aggressive questioning or being left distressed during investigations, said Hestia - a charity that supports victims.
Hestia has launched the first police super-complaint over modern slavery highlighting the concerns, under a system launched in November allowing some expert organisations to raise issues on behalf of the public about harmful police practices.
If a panel compromising officials from government and professional policing bodies and watchdogs upholds the complaint after an assessment, it could result in action ranging from a probe to changes to official police standards on the matter.
In Britain and beyond, activists and lawyers say trafficking victims - particularly foreign ones - are increasingly being prosecuted for crimes they were forced to commit, and treated as illegal migrants amid rising global anti-immigration sentiment.
"If those interactions between police and victims are not managed with great sensitivity then people will simply not come forward," Patrick Ryan, the chief executive of Hestia, which offers support and safe houses for slavery victims in London.
"If somebody does not come forward today then the traffickers remain on the street and they remain doing their work so in fact it helps to allow the activity to continue," Ryan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
The National Police Chiefs' Council was not immediately available to comment.
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.
Yet the Crown Prosecution Service in January told parliament that only seven percent of modern slavery cases recorded by police have been referred to prosecutors to pursue in court.
Hestia's complaint said police sometimes failed to recognise the vulnerability of victims and ensure they felt safe, with errors including carrying out interviews in public and using male officers to interview female victims of sex trafficking.
Frontline authorities including police were "repeatedly failing" victims, according to solicitor Nusrat Uddin.
Uddin said that in some cases, women forced into sex work had been arrested for prostitution offences, while children who were made to cultivate cannabis had been treated as criminals.
"Instead of getting to (the trafficking gangs) what we are doing is penalising the victims and never getting to the root of the problem because they are so afraid and unsupported they are not able to give the evidence that is needed," she said.
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. (Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. 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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