* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Thousands of trafficking victims in Britain are in limbo without the ability to study or earn a living
Red Godfrey-Sagoo is the Chief Executive Officer of the Sophie Hayes Foundation, a charity that supports female survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking
Far from home, without friends, family, contacts, or resources, at present many survivors of modern-day slavery in Britain escape exploitation only to be placed in a fresh form of imprisonment.
UK law forbids many survivors from working, gaining an education or earning a living. Instead they are stuck again for years and years, trapped by a bureaucratic system.
In 2019, more than 9,000 survivors were waiting at the behest of the NRM – the National Referral Mechanism – the UK’s system of identifying and supporting victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. The average time from entering the system to receiving a conclusive grounds trafficking decision (the second and final decision as to whether they are considered a victim) during 2020 was 339 days.
Some survivors wait much longer to know the outcome of their case. This is the dead time. The wasteland. A place of deep uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and increased mental stress. Many survivors say they feel newly punished by the system designed to protect them, whilst others remain fearful of further exploitation.
To compound the extreme vulnerabilities many survivors waiting for decisions within the NRM are unable to be a part of the productive labour force. Many, due to their immigration status cannot enter further education. They must, however, wait for a shifting point in time when they may have a chance to re-join society. A sense of hopelessness, a lack of confidence, a feeling of unworthiness, are typical end results. Without alternatives, many are driven back to exploitation as a means of survival once again.
Work and education are the core pillars of independence that enable survivors to integrate, form networks and communities and meet their personal financial needs as well as providing for dependents. Instead of waiting endlessly to start their lives, often surviving on a government stipend of £39.60 per week, survivors need to be honing skills, learning trades, attending further education, reclaiming their freedom. Studies reveal that survivors who are given permission to work and learn improve their language abilities. Develop skills which provide them with pathways out of exploitation. Improve their mental wellbeing. Allowing survivors to work and learn while waiting for a decision gives relief to the taxpayer. If the moral argument is not strong enough, the economic one is undeniable.
Enabling survivors in the NRM to access work is a simple process which can be achieved in one of two ways.
The preferred option would be to provide survivors a residence permit, or discretionary leave to remain, following a positive first stage trafficking decision. This would give much needed security and certainty.
An alternative option would be to amend the conditions of immigration bail (the status of people in the NRM who do not already have leave to remain in the UK), to grant permission to work. This can be achieved through a change to the Immigration Rules, and to the relevant guidance (i.e.. Modern Slavery Statutory Guidance, Immigration Bail guidance) and would not require changes to primary legislation.
Contrary to the ideas of some commentators, such change would not ‘open the floodgates’ to a wave of new undocumented immigrants. Survivors in the NRM have already been through a two-stage vetting process before being granted survivor status. No survivor is going to submit to the terrors of trafficking merely to get to the UK. Amending the conditions of immigration bail for survivors will only serve to assist in their recovery and ensure they are not made vulnerable to re-trafficking, a real danger that survivors currently face.
In its current shape and form, the NRM does not work. Far from being a pathway to independence and sustainable freedom, it is a red tape jungle. Survivors living in the wasteland of the NRM cannot be kept in limbo when clear paths to sustainable freedom are possible.
That is why the Sophie Hayes Foundation, together with Anti-Slavery International, ATLEU, the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, Coop, Focus on Labour Exploitation, Kalayaan and Survivor Alliance have come together - on the 6-year anniversary of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act - to call on the government to look at this urgently.