Figures released by the organisation After Exploitation show that almost 3000 people who were referred to the National Referral Mechanism as potential trafficking victims were detained in immigration removal centres in less than two years.
A total of 4,102 people detained under immigration powers between January 2019 and September last year were then referred to the NRM before, during, or after their detention in prison-like settings. Their referral identified them as having ‘trafficking indicators’ and as a suspected victim.
Of these, 2914 were said to have ‘positive reasonable grounds’, meaning they were thought to be victims pending further investigation into their case. After being identified, these people would have rights to ‘assistance and support’ under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. A further 194 were granted ‘positive conclusive grounds’, confirming they were a trafficking victim.
The National Referral Mechanism is the framework used by first responders to flag a person as a suspected victim of modern slavery, which encompasses being trafficked. It is the only way that survivors can get access to medical support, housing, and a financial allowance. This only applies for a limited period, and once a person is decided to be a victim, support is usually withdrawn.
However work by After Exploitation raises concerns over the use of ‘Detention Gatekeeping’ functions, which are supposed to identify people too vulnerable for detention. Those being detained should go through multiple screening processes, such as an interview, a review by a Gatekeeping team, and a health screening.
A total of 4,102 people detained between January 2019 and September last year were referred to the NRM before, during, or after their detention
Anyone subject to immigration control can be detained by immigration officers under powers given by various immigration acts. There is also no legal limit to the amount of time people can be detained for. According to its own guidance, the Home Office should use detention proportionately and sparingly, and ‘for the shortest period necessary’. However, all decisions to detain can be made by an individual immigration officer and do not have to be independently reviewed.
The Home Office’s Adults at Risk legal guidance states however that if ‘detention is likely to have a deleterious effect on the individual, they should not be detained unless there are public interest concerns.’ Introduced in 2016, the policy was supposed to reduce the number of ‘vulnerable people’ in detention.
Campaigners say the release of this new data, shows that smaller policy changes make no substantial difference due to the ‘hostile and neglectful system’. Research undertaken by After Exploitation shows this, with the detention of potential modern slavery victims tripling between 2017 and 2020.
Legal experts also say that changes to policies such as shortening asylum interviews have had a disastrous effect on the numbers of people wrongfully kept in detention. People who have potentially been trafficked are not identified at the earliest possible stage.
Rachel Watkin, head of Counter-Trafficking at the Helen Bamber Foundation said ‘Trafficking is most likely to be disclosed when a relationship of trust is built and survivors have time to speak freely about all that has happened to them.’
Immigration detention has been notorious for the lasting damage it imparts on people. For people who may have undergone serious trauma, it is only increased by confinement for any period of time. Rudy Schulkind at Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) said ‘For survivors of trafficking, the experience is frequently re-traumatising and we encounter people whose mental health has deteriorated significantly as a result of detention.‘
Safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins recently opposed a bill aiming to give 12 months’ leave to remain to all modern slavery victims in the UK. She also stated in response to After Exploitation that there is ‘no absolute exclusion from detention for any particular group’ when asked for a blanket ban on detention for trafficking survivors.
Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation said she was ‘deeply concerned’ by the scale of detention of survivors.
‘The government is re-traumatising survivors for not having the very status it refuses to provide them.’