OPINION: Britain has to choose: evict renters or prevent human trafficking?

Monday, 21 September 2020 13:39 GMT

Tents belonging to homeless people are seen during rush hour in Central London, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in London, Britain, March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

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Restarting evictions will not only cause misery, but also a spike in modern slavery cases

Emily Kenway is a former policy adviser to the first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and Focus on Labour Exploitation. Her book, 'The Truth about Modern Slavery' is available for pre-order now. 

This week, renters in England and Wales are at risk of homelessness for the first time in months after a temporary ban on evictions amid the coronavirus pandemic ended on Sunday. Calls from campaign groups to extend the ban have gone unheeded despite the rising infection rate, looming lockdowns and increased financial strife expected in October when the furlough scheme ends. According to the housing charity Shelter, over 300,000 private renters have fallen into arrears since the pandemic began and lawyers are gearing up for a slew of social housing eviction attempts.

Restarting evictions will obviously cause profound misery, but one often overlooked impact is the likelihood of a spike in modern slavery cases. This is for a very simple reason: exploiters seek people in vulnerable circumstances. If you have a good enough wage and secure accommodation, you’re probably going to say no if someone comes along with an offer to meet your basic needs. But if you’re destitute? Most offers are better than your current circumstances and exploiters know this. So, when government policy directly constructs vulnerability – in this case, homelessness – a surge in victimisation is on the cards.

The correlation between homelessness and severe exploitation has been documented by numerous organisations, including the Modern Slavery Helpline which has previously noted 353 reports of possible victims of modern slavery who had experienced homelessness. While many became homeless after exploitation due to inadequate state support for slavery survivors, a significant proportion were exploited while using homelessness services. Currently, the data capture forms used to refer victims of slavery for state support don’t log whether they were recruited from homelessness so there’s no official statistic on the problem, but on-the-ground evidence suggests the Helpline’s reports could be the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, charities like The Passage have documented exploiters using shelters as recruitment grounds, with reports of traffickers posing as homeless people or using food donations to befriend eventual victims.

The government has acknowledged the links between homelessness and modern slavery in its Rough Sleeping Strategy, stating that it “recognises there is a clear potential risk of vulnerable people who are sleeping rough being trafficked.” Its current measures to address this problem focus largely on awareness-raising of frontline staff so that they can identify possible victims. While this is important, it fails to acknowledge that the underlying problem is people becoming homeless in the first place. It’s the same silo mentality we see from the government across modern slavery policy in general: on the one hand, Prime Minister Johnson tells us that the UK continues to “lead the way” globally in tackling modern slavery; on the other hand, the government oversees policies that directly undermine any attempt to do just that. We’ve seen this with migration status, where the hostile environment pushes people into unregulated and high-risk work, and now we see it with housing policy too.

In the case of COVID-related housing issues, the government’s response appears to be a patchwork of measures designed to make it feel better about jettisoning people onto the streets in a time of great national distress. Some eviction notice periods have been extended, evictions won’t be enforced in areas with restrictions on indoors gatherings and there will be a PR-friendly Christmas pause on evictions too. These are little better than window-dressing, obscuring the fact that evictions are re-starting and people will lose their homes in the coming months. A rise in homelessness will be one obvious effect; a second will be the creation of a pool of people desperately seeking work in a broken economy as they try to stave off future evictions. It will be all too easy for exploiters to appear as the miracle for which they’ve been waiting. Instead, the government could choose to maintain the ban on evictions and introduce other measures to support people to stay securely housed, such as rent freezes, an amnesty on arrears and financial support for those unable to make ends meet because of the pandemic. The choice not to protect people’s homes in these ways is a choice to provoke more homelessness and therefore more modern slavery.

Prevention is one of the four principles of our national Modern Slavery Strategy. The Strategy states that the government will “use interventions to stop people being drawn into modern slavery crime”. If it’s serious about this, it would not be pushing people onto the streets in one of the worst public health and economic crises we have experienced. Unless it starts joining the dots between slavery and housing, and ensures no one loses the roof over their head in the coming months, we will fall even further behind our national ideals of tackling modern slavery.