* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Until each child victim has a stable future, the Modern Slavery Act is not fit for purpose
This week the government responded to recommendations made by the Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act, a process set up to assess the effectiveness of the legislation. While the government has taken positive steps over the last 10 years and many of the responses are welcome, there are still gaps in the protection of children.
The scope of the Review was set up by the government, determining which provisions of the Modern Slavery Act would be addressed. These were narrowly delineated as the aims being to ‘…understand how the legal framework for tackling modern slavery is fit for purpose now and in the future’. Surely any piece of legislation seeking to abolish the exploitation of human beings would be concerned with the needs of child victims after they are identified in the UK, yet throughout the Review it became clear the provisions that would significantly improve long term outcomes for children would not be reviewed.
Aged 14, Teru* was trafficked from her hometown in Ethiopia into domestic servitude for a family who brought her to London. She had to labour round the clock and suffered horrific abuse. After a year she managed to escape and was referred by the police to local authority children’s services, but her experience didn’t end there. Her social worker did her best to develop a pathway plan which stated it was in her best interest to remain in the UK as a looked after child. But aged 19, in college training to become a chef, she was told she no longer qualifies for support because of her immigration status. She was forced to drop her studies, made destitute and issued with removal directions returning her to Ethiopia.
Why does this happen when the Modern Slavery Act is heralded by the government as ‘world-leading’? Simply put, the Act does not address the inherent conflict between supporting survivors and maintaining the hostile environment. Neither the Act nor the scope of the Independent Review addressed the essential need to enshrine in primary legislation Article 16.2 of the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive, which requires the UK to take necessary measures to find durable solutions for trafficked children, based on an individual assessment of their best interests. These duties follow obligations on states under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Teru transitioned into adulthood with very limited options. Her long term solution was to spend her formative years sleeping on park benches, enduring assaults and being re-trafficked. This is why ECPAT UK recommended to the Review that the Act should provide for a best interests determination process for child victims of trafficking to ensure a durable solution. However the term ‘durable solution’ appears just once in the 150 page report. This was in context of the Review’s welcome recommendation to extend the Independent Child Trafficking Guardianship service to young people beyond the age of 18 or for longer than 18 months.
While it’s essential that young people will now have this support, durable solutions incorporate all the measures needed to ensure a child’s long term physical and psychological recovery. It requires a multi-agency, child protection response and specialist support. Yet once children are identified as victims of trafficking through the National Referral Mechanism, they are likely to face significant obstacles to their recovery. A durable solutions provision in law would ensure consideration is given to what each child requires to thrive in the long term.
Currently, one of the most significant barriers to children securing positive long term outcomes in their best interests is their immigration status. Unaccompanied child victims of trafficking will, by default, be encouraged to apply for asylum as the only pathway to being granted permanent leave to stay in the UK. If they have been refused refugee status or humanitarian protection, a child victim will most likely be granted limited leave to remain in the UK in the form of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Child (UASC) leave, lasting for only 30 months or until they are 17.5; whichever is shorter. At this critical point, the uncertainty of their immigration status often serves to make them more vulnerable. Many of these children will struggle to claim asylum, either because their cases do not to meet the refugee definition, because there is lack of specialist legal representation or because they struggle to disclose their experiences.
Child victims of trafficking may also be from within the European Economic Area. There is little scrutiny over children returned and research has shown that decisions on returns are often made on an ad hoc basis, with the potential for significant mistakes. A durable solutions process would ensure careful consideration is given to each child’s best interests with regard to any returns process that takes place. Until each child victim has a stable future, the Modern Slavery Act is not fit for purpose.
*Name changed to protect the young person’s identity.
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