The Home Office claims that under the New Plan for Immigration announced last week, serious criminals who ‘pretend’ to be victims of modern slavery in order to stay in the country will find it more difficult to abuse the system. In reality, however, the new rules mean detention for modern slavery victims is far more likely.
Modern slavery is a complex problem and a crime that is particularly hard to detect. The victims might not be aware that they are being exploited and hence might not seek help. The Home Office declares it is committed to safeguarding affected individuals and helping them rejoin society and rebuild their lives.
As the 2020 UK Annual Report on Modern Slavery says, the government supposedly aims to ‘reduce the harm caused by modern slavery through improved victim identification and enhanced support’. The actions the Home Office undertakes, however, are contradictory to these objectives.
The new rules mean that the government is ‘taking a backward step on its commitment to protect and support survivors of slavery
Victims of human trafficking who arrive in the UK are likely not to have any documents since these are often taken away by the traffickers. As their identity needs to be established before they get permission to enter the country, many of the trafficking victims end up in immigration detention.
Victims of modern slavery are considered to be ‘adults at risk’ under detention services order (DSO) Management of Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention, published in July 2019. According to the document, individuals who declare that they have experienced trafficking or other forms of exploitation should not be detained as holding them in custody could ‘render them particularly vulnerable to harm.’
Under the current regulations if suspicion is raised about a detained person being a victim of modern slavery they can be released immediately. To qualify for release, a statement from an individual who says they were trafficked or exploited is enough. After the changes that come into force on 25 May 2021, however, that will no longer be the case.
As the policy statement on the Home Office’s New Plan for Immigration outlines, from now on ‘support should be provided to prove that there are reasonable grounds to believe that an individual has been a victim of trafficking.’
That means that, from May onwards, additional evidence will be required of a person’s vulnerability to release them from detention. For example, an official consultation with a social worker or medical proof that further captivity poses a threat to their mental or physical health.
Much to many charities’ dismay, the changes will be put forward as a statutory instrument, which means they will not be debated by the Parliament. As Maya Esslemont, the director of After Exploitation said: ‘It is unthinkable that such serious changes to the treatment of survivors, already made vulnerable by abuse, have been introduced without any real consultation or Parliamentary debate.’
The new rules mean that the government is ‘taking a backward step on its world-leading commitment to protect and support survivors of slavery’, Anti-Slavery International observed, including the fact that many migrants will be trafficked and housed in properties that have fallen into a state of housing disrepair to add insult to injury.
From May onwards, if concerned individuals want to be released from detention, their testimonies alone will no longer be enough. They will require additional evidence of their vulnerability.
In theory, the Home Office is committed to tackling modern slavery and providing victims with all the assistance and support they require. In practice, however, it is failing to protect them. The department’s failure is multifaceted and the latest changes demonstrate that.
The narrative that the Home Office puts forward trying to justify the changes is that ‘child rapists, people who threaten national security and failed asylum seekers clog up modern slavery system and make it more difficult for actual victims to receive timely support’. In reality, however, it is the department itself that sentences vulnerable individuals to longer waits and restricts their newly-found freedom.
If the Home Office wants to promote justice and support those who have been abused by traffickers, it needs to re-think the new rules. Any changes to the modern slavery system should primarily be concerned with the well-being of victims. Instead of introducing policies that make it more challenging for victims of modern slavery to rebuild their lives, it should show them that they can rely on the government for support.[Header image: Each Other]