The Modern Slavery Act 2015 is bitterly failing those it claims to protect. Women and girls, in particular, are shunted through the violent and illegal human trafficking trade – like a “revolving door” as MP Gavin Shuker, chair of the APPG said last year – to be sold off as brides, domestic servants or sex slaves.
Cases of slavery shot up by 159% between 2017-18 with one further inquiry by the All-Parliamentary Group uncovering ‘pop up’ brothels in every rural town and city across the UK, mapping the prevalence of the trade on an “industrial scale”. Indeed, Leicestershire, Northumbria and Greater Manchester police have all raided illegal brothels and identified victims of sexual slavery within them. However, they also uncovered an alarming consistency: the majority of women being forced into prostitution overwhelmingly come from abroad, particularly from Eastern European countries.
Yet the plight of migrant slavery victims is far from over once they are liberated from their captors. There are numerous hurdles survivors must clear in order to access support. This design is actually proving to leave women vulnerable to destitution, homelessness and re-exploitation.
The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) responsible for providing counselling, housing and financial aid for survivors has long been criticised for falling short. Many victims have been left without any safe housing options whatsoever while others have been housed in the same area from where they were originally exploited. One joint piloted scheme and report ‘Hope for the Future’ led by the British Cross, Hestia and Ashiana (STEP) further found female victims were being inappropriately placed in mixed-sex accommodation where unfettered access from male guests was forcing them to live in fear and isolation. It is hardly ideal for survivors of gender-based violence who are terrified of men as a result and need safe spaces to recover.
“In the asylum accommodation it is very scary. Homeless men are coming in every night, they break in the door and sleep in the hallway. The [housing provider] people fixed the door, but they still keep breaking in and sleep under the stairs. [STEP worker] has told the police, but they still keep coming every night, kicking the door, so I am very afraid and can’t sleep. Yes, of course [it’s worse] because I am a woman … that’s what I’m thinking all the time.”
“I have bad memories in my head, and I can’t get friendship with a man.”Survivors share their ordeal in STEP’s report, Hope for the Future.
The NRM support was also limited to 45-days up until recently. Campaigners had argued that the sudden drop-off in support at the end of 6 weeks was prematurely pushing women to move on before they were ready. Fortunately, the High Court lifted the time restriction on the support this year, designing a new needs-based system which will allegedly support victims in accordance with their unique requirements.
However, there is a possibility that survivors will be at the mercy of a ‘postcode lottery’, as warned by managing director of slavery charity, Unseen. Local councils may be ill-equipped to source and supply funding for survivors while disadvantaged areas may be starved of resources to help at all. It is not uncommon for victims to be denied support, even via the NRM: one Freedom of Information request unveiled 752 victims between 2015-17 had no right to remain in the UK and were barred from accommodation, mental health services and monetary support.
“The government should change the procedures and timescales for cases … and have proper officials that make decisions on people’s cases … stop making the wrong decisions which have errors, the procedures in decision making need to change.”Another survivor in STEP’s report.
For this reason, migrant survivors of abhorrent abuse such as forced prostitution and sexual slavery should have access to public funding. The ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) rule blanket bans anyone who hasn’t got British citizenship or permanent residency in the UK.
The British Red Cross had previously argued that NRM support should extend to 1 year while survivors should be granted a solid immigration status such as Leave to Remain. However, trafficking victims ought to have uncapped access to welfare support and benefits to heal in their own time. This is a view relatively similar to that of the anti-slavery charity, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX): FLEX argue that migrants on temporary visas after Brexit would be able to escape exploitative forced labour situations without facing total destitution if the NRPF was lifted for them.
There is clearly a lot to be done when supporting survivors of the world’s most evil practices, however, lifting the ban on their support system is the first step. Women’s bodily autonomy has already been stripped from them – the Home Office do not need to pile on the pressure. Granting victims access to benefits is the least the UK can do towards aiding their debilitating but necessary healing process.[Header credit: https://thecircle.ngo/facts-myths-sex-trafficking-canada/ ]