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OPINION: UK government must stop detaining victims of trafficking under immigration powers

Tuesday, 30 July 2019 08:29 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A police officer is silhouetted against the sky next to the Big Ben clock tower during sunset in central London, January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Victims of trafficking are part of a Home Office pattern of maintaining detention of vulnerable people even when detention medical staff show concern

While the UK government has made high profile commitments to ‘defeating modern slavery’, potential victims continue to be detained under immigration powers despite clear signs that they have been trafficked.

The Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) has published today a new report showing that government authorities are failing to identify, refer and support potential victims of trafficking, leading to retraumatisation, lack of support and, in some cases, even pushing them back into exploitation.

Findings from LEAG’s report add to a series of cases gathered by other organisations supporting detained victims of human trafficking. As a result, today also sees the launch of the Taskforce on Victims of Human Trafficking in Immigration Detention, a group of nine expert organisations that will work collaboratively to end detention of victims of trafficking and advocate for vital changes in the immigration detention system.

LEAG’s report exposes serious failings of different government agencies to identify and support victims of trafficking prior to and while in immigration detention. Nadine*, who is now supported by Ashiana Sheffield, was trafficked and exploited in the UK and was subsequently arrested and detained for immigration offences. Authorities failed to identify her as a potential victim at multiple stages in the process, which ultimately led to her removal from the UK. She was then re-trafficked to different European countries where she faced destitution and homelessness, before being trafficked back to the UK where she was finally identified by a charity and later referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s framework to identify and support victims of trafficking.

On another case, Ngoc* spent 18 months in immigration detention despite having medical reports that he was a likely victim of torture and presented indicators of trafficking. Even though Immigration Removal Centre doctors were concerned for Ngoc’s well-being, the Home Office chose to maintain his detention until LEAG member Bail for Immigration Detainees ensured he was referred to the NRM.

These are only two of 143 cases identified by LEAG where government agencies responsible for identifying victims of trafficking failed to do so, leading victims to spend long periods of time in immigration detention without receiving the assistance they are entitled to.

While appalling, this poor identification within immigration detention is not surprising considering that those working for the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), the main first responder within detention, are only required to complete two online courses on modern slavery that total 90 minutes, not nearly enough to deal with the complexities related to trafficking cases. It is also common for UKVI case workers never to meet the detainee whose case they are responsible for. This is extremely concerning as the Home Office has recognised that people who have experienced exploitation are unlikely to self-identify as victims and therefore require proactive identification by government authorities. And yet, the department continues to rely on victims to come forward.

If the cases above demonstrate that people are not being identified within detention, it is equally concerning that victims are being detained despite having already been identified as potential victims. Two months after being referred to the NRM, Dan* was detained. Instead of receiving specialised support and care, he spent two months in detention before being subsequently released, delaying his recovery. The Home Office is also denying bail to some victims who have been identified while in immigration detention. This is the case of Peter* who, after being referred to the NRM from within detention, was told by the Home Office that he would not be released. This decision was based on the May 2018 Court of Appeal decision that decided trafficking victims’ needs can be met within immigration detention, despite numerous studies showing the long-lasting negative impact of detention on vulnerable people’s mental health.

Sadly, victims of trafficking are not alone. They are part of a Home Office pattern of maintaining detention of vulnerable people even when detention medical staff show concern for the person’s well-being. In 2018, 77.6% of detainees considered vulnerable under the Home Office’s ‘Adults at Risk’ policy were kept in detention despite evidence that some were victims of torture or that detention was severely affecting their mental health.

Article 18 of the EU Victims’ Rights Directive establishes that victims should be protected from “secondary and repeat victimisation, from intimidation and retaliation, including against the risk of emotional and psychological harm”. LEAG believes the UK government is not complying with this. Failure to identify victims prior to them entering immigration detention, caused by a focus on immigration enforcement, means that victims of trafficking are forced to relive many of the experiences they may have had while being exploited, such as having their freedom restricted and limited private time, which is further intensified by the uncertainty around how long they will be kept in detention. This serves to retraumatise them and negatively impact their recovery.

LEAG members share the view that the Home Office treats potential victims of trafficking primarily as immigration offenders rather than victims, leading to many being overlooked, unidentified, poorly supported and at the very worst, removed from the UK at risk of being re-trafficked. If the UK is serious about identifying and supporting victims of trafficking, it should put victims’ well-being and recovery first, irrespective of their immigration status. Today’s newly announced Taskforce looks forward to working with government to ensure no victim of human trafficking is detained.


*Victims’ names have been changed to protect their identities.