Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

UK Home Office launches new assault on the rights of modern slavery survivors

The UK Home Office seems to have a new project: help as few survivors of modern slavery as possible

Maya Esslemont
6 July 2022, 9.39am

PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Former Prime Minister Theresa May’s drive to “shine a light” on modern slavery has been the subject of government speeches and press releases for the better part of 10 years. This awareness drive has not only generated headlines, but also referrals as agencies have become mindful of trafficking indicators in their day-to-day work. First responders, such as the police, border forces, local authorities and charities, have steadily identified more and more victims: 5,468 more potential victims were identified in 2020 than in 2017. Just as May had hoped, the UK had started to draw the most extreme forms of exploitation out of the shadows.

Yet, seemingly overnight in March 2021, Boris Johnson’s administration chose to re-interpret growing awareness of slavery as an “alarming rise of abuse within the modern slavery system”. In fact, despite 86% of trafficking cases receiving a positive final decision in the first quarter of 2021 from the Home Office, the home secretary Priti Patel argued that “the law on modern slavery is being exploited”. The government later admitted, via a freedom of information request, that there was no evidence of system abuse, let alone a rise in abuse by “foreign national offenders” or “child rapists” as a Home Office press release had originally claimed.

Without the backing of a single survivor-led group, sweeping changes to survivor rights were proposed in order to make it much harder for victims to secure support, such as access to safe housing, caseworker advocacy, counselling, or legal help. These plans were not made accessible to those who spoke a language other than English or Welsh during the consultation, excluding survivors with language barriers from sharing the impact of these changes on their lives. The resultant Nationality and Borders Act comes into force this month, and will take away survivors’ guaranteed support. Decision makers will instead be granted new powers to prevent survivors from getting the help they need due to factors irrelevant to their case – such as the victims’ offending history or even the time it takes them to share evidence.

Instead of improving access to help, the government seems determined to eradicate it.

These changes, which subject survivors to blame and shame, will push traumatised and stigmatised survivors further into hiding. We know this, because so many survivors have told us so. Whilst campaigning against Part 5 of the bill, one survivor told us that it took her months to disclose the details of her sexual and criminal exploitation, partly because of how difficult it was to trust complete strangers with this information and partly because she feared disbelief. She said that, under the Nationality and Borders Act which penalises victims for ‘delayed disclosure’, she would not have felt safe enough to come forward at all. Other survivors shared instances in which, even under the old system, they handed over evidence to the police almost immediately but were still denied safe housing. Trust is crucial to victim identification. Yet, this government is demolishing the bridges which have taken survivor groups, agencies, and charities so long to build.

Defining trafficking victims out of existence

Modern slavery support is at crisis point and, instead of improving access to help, the government seems determined to eradicate it. Last week, the Slavery and Human Trafficking (Definition of Victim) Regulations 2022 were introduced as ‘secondary legislation’ to the Nationality and Borders Act. These spell out who the UK now considers a ‘real’ victim of human trafficking. They are needlessly narrow.

Criminal exploitation, the leading form of trafficking, does not earn a single mention in the regulations. ‘Sexual exploitation’ is now only ‘valid’ when the exploitation falls under one of a grouping of sexual offences cherry-picked by the government. Organised crime shifts quickly, yet this definition of sexual exploitation barely recognises the current role that multimedia plays in perpetuating abuse, let alone future iterations of this crime which will likely develop.

What is most worrying about the erosion of victims’ rights is how extreme the changes are. Despite the efforts of NGOs and the government’s own conservative counterparts in the House of Lords to meet the current administration halfway, the government has steadfastly refused to moderate its stance on modern slavery. Last year, the Lords voted to retain rights for child survivors, at the very least, by disapplying Part 5 of the Nationality and Borders Act to victims aged 17 years old or under. Yet, even this depressing compromise was rejected in its entirety. So was every other modern slavery amendment that members, in both houses, painstakingly tried to broker.

Survivor rights have already been undermined to a dangerous degree, but we must recognise that further threats may lie ahead in the next parliamentary session. New modern slavery legislation announced in the most recent Queen’s speech promised “supply chain transparency”. Now, as more details come to light, it is clear that survivor support will once again be in the crosshairs. Unnamed Whitehall sources are already decrying what skeletal rights remain intact under the Modern Slavery Act as a “huge problem”: in a recent article in the Daily Express, an anonymous government source claimed that trafficking cases raised by asylum seekers had prevented their deportation to Rwanda. The piece failed to state a simple but important fact: potential and recognised victims of trafficking have that status because the Home Office itself has deemed their claims ‘reasonable’ or ‘conclusively true’. Put simply, the Home Office is recognising people as victims of modern slavery, only to try and deport them anyway.

Previous governments extolled the necessity of identifying and supporting victims as they rebuild their lives after exploitation. Now, far from being a leading light in the fight against slavery, the UK is legislating survivors into obscurity.

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