* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.We are now braced for another fight, on a guidance on minimum standards of care for the victims that the Home Office is planning to publish shortly
Anna Sereni is Anti-Slavery International’s Co-ordinator and Researcher for the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG), a coalition of 13 organisations established to monitor the UK’s implementation of European anti-trafficking legislation. Anti-Slavery International chairs the coalition.
A woman who was trafficked into Britain at the age of three and sexually exploited for decades was told by the Home Office that she was in Britain illegally, even though she didn’t even know where she was trafficked from.
Extremely vulnerable Chinese women who were trafficked to the Britain were sent to detention often with no legal representation or access to medical care.
A man, sold into slavery at the age of three in in his native Ghana, then trafficked into the Britain, was told he would be deported back to the country where all he knew were his captors. It took the Courts of Appeal to stop it.
These stories just from the last few weeks show how the Britain treats people who fell victim of modern slavery. Unfortunately, we hear similar stories on a daily basis. They show a deeply unjust bureaucratic system that is hostile to modern slavery survivors, the ones it is meant to support. And it is about to get worse.
Currently, people who are suspected to be victims of slavery are referred to and supported by the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – a system specially created to support victims of slavery whilst their cases are decided by the Home Office. In practice it mainly means a safe house (if needed) and a case worker helping the potential victim navigate the system, from applying for access to free healthcare, counselling or legal representation to gather evidence of their own trafficking for the Home Office (yes, potential victims don’t any of the above automatically, they have to apply for it), to dealing with the police.
When the Home Office decides that such person is not in fact a victim of trafficking, they have two days to move out of a safe house (if they use one) with no further support. Remember, these are extremely vulnerable people who often are not able to work legally or access benefits. And we know from research that many of these decisions are wrong and often linked to the victims’ immigrations status.
In theory, a service provider – an organisation contracted by the Home Office to support potential victims - could challenge the negative the Home Office decision. However, the Home Office won’t pay for their work doing it, so the service providers rarely do so as their resources are already stretched. In other words, there is a conflict of interests at the heart of these care contracts: the home Office won’t pay for challenging their own decisions.
Furthermore, the online NRM database has been recently changed to disable the option to apply for extension of support to a person they think was given a wrong decision, further limiting the victims’ ability to appeal it. The message simply orders them to exit the service.
It doesn’t stop here though. Last year the Home Office quietly cut the weekly support for asylum-seeking victims supported by the NRM 37 pounds per week – an over 50 percent cut - making them even more vulnerable to be exploited again - because if you can’t afford basic living you will be desperate for any work, even if illegal. It took us to take the case to High Court to reverse it.
We are now braced for another fight, on a guidance on minimum standards of care for the victims that the Home Office is planning to publish shortly. These standards specify what each victim is entitled to as a minimum from the state and the are crucial to hold the government to account on how they support the survivors. There is real worry that they will be very weak.
The Home Office has already announced that it’s planning to cut the weekly support for victims again, under the name of equalling it to that of asylum seekers, again to 37 pounds per week.
After losing its earlier court case it had to fork out over 1 million pounds to repay the victims whose support it cut, the Home Office knows full well they won’t be compatible with any decent standards, so it will be a litmus test of its thinking about victims of slavery.
Finally, and ironically, even if the victims do get recognised as victims, they have two more weeks in the safehouse rather than two days, and if they claim asylum, they’re moved to asylum seeker accommodation, unsuitable for most vulnerable victims, so the benefits of getting officially identified as victims of slavery are not always obvious.
All this means we need to rehaul the whole system supporting slavery victims. A Modern Slavery Victims Support Bill is in the Commons now and would be a great start, guaranteeing twelve months of comprehensive support without worrying about the immigration status. But so far the government refuses to support it.
Without it, the UK won’t be able to claim it supports slavery victims in anything approaching relevant fashion.
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