In 2015, the United Nations vowed to end modern slavery by 2030. The coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns could prove a heavy setback, but only in exposing the weaknesses and hostility at the heart of immigration policy.
Modern slavery is a wide umbrella term, that can include being trafficked, with victims forced into exploitation most commonly forced labour such as in agricultural work or in factories, or criminal activity, prostitution, or forced marriages.
The UK plays a significant role in ending modern slavery by detecting and combating human trafficking and exploitation that takes place within British borders. There is a responsibility for the Home Office to ease the suffering and trauma experienced by modern slavery victims.
Due to it’s underground and hidden nature, it is incredibly difficult to know how many victims there could be in the UK. 5144 modern slavery offences were recorded by police in England and Wales in the twelve months to March 2019, an increase of 51% on the year before. People who have been trafficked should be referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM); in the first quarter of 2020, 2871 people were referred, a 33% increase on the same quarter in 2019. Numbers fell by 23% between April and June, influenced by the pandemic.
Despite the Home Office stating they are ‘committed to tackling modern slavery and identifying and supporting victims’, hostile environment policies and operations of the immigration system repeatedly fails the people most affected.
When the Home Office supports victims of trafficking, they should be quick to deliver decisions about the victim’s status in the UK. However, recent reports show on average, victims wait 452 days for a decision in their case with some cases over two years, unnecessarily extending their suffering.
Discretionary leave, where the Home Office gives trafficking victims the right to live and work in the UK, for all non-EEA survivors of trafficking is automatically considered. The number that qualifies, however, is severely low. In the first three months of 2020, only 8 people received discretionary leave.
The Home Office policy as part of NRM should provide housing, financial support and opportunity to work for survivors. More victims may be being identified, but their responsibility and obligation to look after those under their care is being neglected. Many survivors are not receiving the support they are entitled, including any money from the government to survive. Only 25% of those referred received a safe house bed from the main contractor, the Salvation Army.
Without these things and nowhere else to turn, survivors of trafficking will be at high risk of living on the street running the risk of deportation by the Home Office thanks to new immigration rules. Other hostile environment policies, such as a ban on the right to work and no access to the benefits system make it almost impossible for a survivor to start to rebuild. The coronavirus pandemic has made this worse by further halting the efficiency and speed of services.
Despite the Home Office stating they are ‘committed to tackling modern slavery and identifying and supporting victims’, hostile environment policies and operations of the immigration system repeatedly fails the people most affected
This could lead to them finding themselves back at square one where their state-engineered vulnerability could easily see them become trafficked once again, or removed.
The UK’s new status as non-EU member state since 1 January has further complicated its handling of survivors. EEA nationals, (from EU states plus Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway), who may have experienced trafficking face similar delays in decisions relating to discretionary leave in the country.
If they did not apply to the EU Settled Status Scheme and are not claiming asylum, could now be left unsure about their status and their futures with limited or no access to state support. Under current policy, victims of modern slavery from the EEA who are given discretionary leave are not automatically permitted to stay, despite qualifying as a survivor.
With people who have experienced such trauma having to relive it and such a small percentage of crimes actually getting prosecuted, they may choose not to speak up
They must go through an additional qualifying process, which includes pursuing a case against their traffickers and helping police with enquiries. The policy states as EEA countries are identified as ‘safe’, an asylum claim would most likely not be accepted, even if a person has been exploited and trafficked.
With people who have experienced such trauma having to relive it and such a small percentage of crimes actually getting prosecuted, they may choose not to speak up. Previous experiences with authorities and police may also prove to be a factor. Hinging their acceptance into safety upon such cooperation retraumatises and victimises people, rather than focusing on supporting their wellbeing.
These victims do not have the privilege to wait on decisions that may never come to them. These and other Home Office actions show that they are more interested in sending human trafficking victims back to their home country rather than helping them in this country where they have been exploited, potentially for years. A culture of disbelief that has caused misery to so many extends even to those who have been exploited and enslaved.
The policy states as EEA countries are identified as ‘safe’, an asylum claim would most likely not be accepted, even if a person has been exploited and trafficked
For the UK to become a more vital contributor to ending human trafficking and modern slavery the Home Office must change how it deals with victims. The Home Office must treat victims of modern slavery with more priority and they must streamline the process of making leave decisions.
As we enter a third national lockdown, more resources must be given not only to those who have been trafficked, but to end the hostile environment. Granting leave and proper support provision would prevent victims from being hung out to dry and ease their suffering, instead of being repeatedly used as a political prop by the Home Office.
[Header Image: Aida L, Unsplash]