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Four years after UK's Modern Slavery Act, urgent action is needed to support victims

by Rachel Smith | Human Trafficking Foundation
Tuesday, 26 March 2019 13:56 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman holds her umbrella as she walks across Westminster Bridge in front of Big Ben in London January 11, 2007. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

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Despite the initial enthusiasm in tackling slavery, policymakers are proving reluctant to act to protect victims and provide the support they need to truly have the hope of a better future

Rachel Smith is communications assistant at the Human Trafficking Foundation.

On 26th March 2015, the then Home Secretary Theresa May launched the Modern Slavery Act to address “the greatest human rights issue of our time.”

Four years on, we are more aware than ever that slavery still exists in the UK, with estimates ranging from 10-13,000 by the Home Office to 136,000 by the Global Slavery Index.

Regular press coverage and posters on how to ‘spot the signs’ means we can no longer turn a blind eye.

But while awareness has grown, the reality for victims of slavery has changed very little.

Despite the initial enthusiasm in tackling slavery, policymakers are proving reluctant to act to protect victims and provide the support they need to truly have the hope of a better future.

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act contained only two sections on supporting victims of slavery. They called on the Secretary of State to issue future guidance, and remain incomplete.

Meanwhile, victims of slavery are being failed by the authorities that should be providing means of escape, support and justice.

Yesterday, a super-complaint by Hestia, London’s biggest provider of support to victims of slavery, highlighted the prevalence of the government’s hostile environment immigration policies over the need to support victims.

Claire Waxman, Victims Commissioner for London, shared that many victims are being treated as criminals by law enforcement and, rather than being taken to safe houses, they are being locked up in detention centres.

Section 49 of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act says the Secretary of State “must issue guidance” on how to identify victims and how to respond to a suspected victim.

In 2019, statutory guidance still does not exist. Without statutory guidance, the NHS, police and local authorities lack the tools they need to effectively respond to modern slavery.

The result is often that when victims do finally find the courage and opportunity to escape, they are faced with scepticism, interrogation, and sometimes dismissal, leaving them with nowhere to go other than back to their traffickers.

Despite limited training, the compassion and willingness of many in the emergency, social and voluntary services to go the extra mile means some victims are being identified and referred for support, but this is being left to chance and the uncertainty does not stop there.

Once victims enter the National Referral Mechanism, the government system of identification and immediate support, they are given a letter telling them they have 45 days to submit evidence of their experiences while their case is considered and then they must be ready to leave support.

While awaiting a decision, which can take anything from 45 days to 900 days or more, they are offered a caseworker and, if they can demonstrate they have nowhere else to go, a safe house.

The support ends when decision-makers, which for non-European victims is the UKVI, decide whether they believe that they are a victim of trafficking, confirmed by a ‘conclusive grounds’ decision.

This decision guarantees no automatic rights, entitlements, or further support, often leaving victims isolated, homeless and at high risk of being trafficked again.

Section 50 of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act states that the Secretary of State “may make regulations providing for assistance and support” for identified victims of trafficking.

Since 2015, support providers, NGOs and experts have produced numerous reports addressing the horrors experienced by victims due to current system failures and calling on the government to make statutory regulation

The proposed Modern Slavery (Victim Support Bill) recommends minimum standards of care, minimum one-year entitlement to work and access support in the UK, and an advocate to assist in continuing the recovery process.

A 2016 Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry echoed experts’ recommendations, but still the government resisted, explaining it believes a grant of temporary immigration status would encourage people to pretend they had been trafficked. The committee found no evidence of this so-called ‘pull factor’.

Cries have fallen on deaf ears, and victims continue to suffer.

Reliance on food banks, battles over immigration status, and periods of street homelessness remain common reports by organisations working with identified victims of slavery.

In November 2018, a High Court judge reminded the Secretary of State of his “absolute duty immediately to issue the guidance that parliament has required of him,” and the government was stunned into action.

The 8-page interim draft guidance which followed six weeks later bore little resemblance to the recommendations of experts and was met with extreme concern that it was ‘not fit for purpose.'

Four years on from the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act, the minister is committed to creating much needed statutory guidance.

The minister must seize this opportunity to tackle the “greatest human rights issue of our time” by engaging and consulting publicly with organisations serving victims and survivors to ensure guidance meets the need.

Guidance must provide victims and survivors with the entitlements and consistency of support needed to recover, rebuild their lives and achieve justice.