OPINION: UK data denial obscures trafficking victims’ access to justice and support

by Maya Esslemont | After Exploitation
Tuesday, 29 September 2020 13:39 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Dawn breaks behind the Houses of Parliament and the statue of Winston Churchill in Westminster, London, Britain June 24, 2016. 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.

While politicians were being denied evidence on the detention of victims, the government was detaining growing numbers

By Maya Esslemont, Director of After Exploitation, a data-mapping project investigating hidden slavery outcomes such as the detention and deportation of survivors

Modern slavery is routinely referenced as one of the world’s most “hidden” crimes. With NGO reports and government funding announcements routinely emphasising the "clandestine" nature of exploitation, one consensus is clear: In the fight against trafficking, concrete data is gold dust.

Yet, the UK government has a complicated relationship with its own reporting practices.

Since the passage of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, the Home Office has tracked the detention, deportation, and other immigration outcomes of trafficking victims known to the UK state. However, this information has been wrongly denied to MPs and Lords in 25 instances, according to new research by After Exploitation.

This data refusal has allowed damaging practices, such as the detention of survivors, to persist. Whilst MPs were being denied evidence on the detention of victims in nine separate Parliamentary Questions, the government was detaining growing numbers. Between 2017 and last year, 2,580 potential survivors were held in prison-like settings due to their immigration status. Within only three years, this practice rose by 206%.

Conversely, as the detention of potential survivors was rising, the convictions of traffickers was falling. The current three-year annual average for trafficking convictions rests at 38, compared to the detention of 860 potential victims. In practice, this means that Britain holds more potential survivors behind bars than perpetrators. Had it not been for investigations via FOI, the scale of this worrying trend would never have been published.

In four further instances, parliamentarians were denied data on the deportation and voluntary return of modern slavery victims. This evidence was later obtained by After Exploitation via FOI, whilst follow-up reporting by Thomson Reuters Foundation revealed that voluntary returns were taking survivors back to re-trafficking ‘hotspots’ such as Vietnam and Nigeria.

Further investigations by After Exploitation revealed that a majority (52%) of potential victims taking a ‘voluntary’ return were doing so after being held in detention rather than support settings. Questions were subsequently raised by charities, not just on the detention of victims, but on the use of Voluntary Returns as a way to meet immigration targets.

The role that this data can play in holding the government to account is self-evident. Yet, extracting this information is burdensome. Hidden Futures references one FOI request, for statistics on failed support referrals, which was not returned until nine months after the statutory deadline for FOI responses.

It is hard to see how charities, providing front-line support to victims, can also be expected to forensically and doggedly challenge data refusals by Government. It is not realistic, nor is it just, for civil society to divest energy away from supporting victims into protracted data battles for readily obtainable data.

Whilst ministers have raised the fact that FOI data is not always assured to the standard of published statistics, this is a red herring.

Internal management, or ‘live operational’, data is routinely provided to Select Committees and MPs as a means of holding administrations to account. In fact, during the same debate in which the source of revealed detention data was derided as 'not always accurate’ the Minister invoked statistics from this same source in order to absolve the Government’s track record on lengths of detention amongst victims.

It is unacceptable for the Government to rely on this data in cases of self defence, whilst refusing to release the same outcomes when it may result in difficult conversations. 

Awareness of trafficking is rising, but the lack of published evidence on long-term survivor outcomes leaves most members of the public clueless as to the kind of support and protection, if any, is available to victims after exploitation. 

The release of basic data on the support, detention, deportation and voluntary returns of potential and recognised victims could contribute to improved policies and better outcomes for survivors, if only government would take the steps needed to release it.

For too long, victims have been subjected to increased risk by the state, where they should have been supported. It is vital that the government work, at pace, to hold itself to a higher standard on modern slavery.