UK's immigration policies are threatening survivors of modern slavery

by Maya Esslemont | After Exploitation
Sunday, 18 October 2020 06:30 GMT

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To mark Anti-Slavery Day in Britain, dozens of civil society groups are demanding immigration protection for victims of human trafficking

Maya Esslemont is Director of After Exploitation, a data-mapping initiative tracking the hidden outcomes facing survivors of modern slavery.

The UK’s emphasis on immigration control, at the expense of human dignity and safety, is threatening efforts to identify and support survivors of trafficking.

That is why a cohort of more than 50 advocates, researchers, and experts are marking Anti-Slavery Day by calling for a commitment to ensure that victims of trafficking do not face punitive immigration control measures if they come forward for support.

Modern slavery deprives people of their liberty, and often leaves victims with the life-long legacy of physical, mental or sexual abuse. Yet, too many victims who seek help from the authorities are subject to harmful immigration control measures rather than support.

1,256 potential trafficking victims were held in prison-like detention centres, last year alone, due to their immigration status. Many will go on to become ‘confirmed’ victims, with 42 already recognised as having been trafficked[i]. Conversely, the State only convicted 35 traffickers in the same period. 

In practice, we hold more survivors than perpetrators behind bars.

Modern slavery is routinely referred to as a ‘hidden crime’ but, with no immigration protection in place for survivors, it is little wonder that victims of exploitation are so rarely counted. It is well documented by NGOs that traffickers use the threat of detention and forced removal to ensure compliance from those they abuse. An exclusive focus on immigration control is playing into traffickers’ hands, making it harder for victims to come forward.

To ensure that victims report this crime, receive support, and pursue justice where it is right for them, the Government must provide at least 12 months’ support and immigration protection for survivors, as outlined in the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill. The Government must also introduce an absolute bar on the detention of confirmed and potential victims of slavery, and address the high numbers of vulnerable people deemed suitable for detention. 

We are concerned that traffickers will also be emboldened by proposed policies to prejudge asylum claims on the basis of the time at which they are made, or the route by which the claimant arrived. Victims of trafficking often have no choice but to claim asylum months or years after first entering the country. This will impact many survivors, for whom the factors that made them vulnerable to traffickers in the first place will pose further threats upon removal. Worryingly, even under the current asylum process, many trafficked people already struggle to secure the international protection they need from a system notorious for disbelief.

Lastly, we must challenge the narrative that tougher borders stop human trafficking. On the contrary, trafficking is made profitable through a lack of safe and legal routes, and made sustainable through policies which deter victims from seeking help. We urge the government to turn the tide. 

Asylum applications must be considered on merit, in a framework that acknowledges that many who make asylum claims, including survivors of modern slavery, have no choice but to arrive spontaneously or claim asylum after having been in the UK for some time. First and foremost, any reform to our immigration system must seek to remedy, rather than entrench, the wrongs committed against survivors of modern slavery.

The UK has played a crucial role in sounding the alarm on this heinous crime, at home and on a global stage, with the passage of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. However, without action, traffickers will continue to benefit from hostile immigration policies.

Organisations backing the call include: After Exploitation, The AIRE Centre, African Rainbow Family, Amnesty International UK, Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), Association of visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID), Baca, Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), Birds Solicitors, Choose Love, City of Sanctuary, Deighton Pierce Glynn, Doughty Street Chambers Immigration and Anti-Trafficking Teams, Duncan Lewis, Equality Now, Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT), Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), Freedom From Torture, Freedom United, Garden Court Chambers, Govan Community Project, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Kalayaan, Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), Law Centres Network, Leigh Day, Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network, Medact, Migrants’ Rights Network, Migrant Voice, Migrants at Work, The No Accommodation Network (NACCOM), One Pump Court Chambers, Reading Refugee Support Group, Refuge, Refugee Council, Scottish Detainee Visitors (SDV). Solidarity With Refugees, South London Refugee Association, Southwell & Partners, St Chad's Sanctuary, Survivor Alliance, Unseen, The Voice of Domestic Workers, Waging Peace, Women for Refugee Women and Women's Aid

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