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Tue 22 June 2021

Stealth legislation that will come into force on 25 May, along with the New Plan for Immigration, could lead to victims of modern slavery spending longer in immigration detention, reports Sian Norris

The Home Office’s immigration reforms include changes to how the Government will deal with potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery entering the system.

The six-week consultation process on the proposed changes has been criticised by a range of refugee and migrant rights charities for being a “sham” and a “public relations exercise with a pre-determined outcome”. Less discussed has been the Home Office’s approach to modern slavery which, NGOs warn, could make it harder for people to prove their victim status in order to access support. 

The changes to trafficking support outlined in the Government’s ‘New Plan For Immigration’ follow stealth legislation already passed which asks potential victims of trafficking to provide more evidence before they can be released from immigration detention – including proof that remaining in detention will cause a future risk of harm.

Under the new rules – which were opposed by the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Green Party – survivors of trafficking and modern slavery risk being held in Home Office detention for longer periods of time. Many of these individuals will already have been traumatised by being kept in prison-like conditions by their traffickers. 


The Threat of Detention

In March, the Government used a negative Statutory Instrument – a legal mechanism that allows the Government to update guidance without parliamentary debate or scrutiny – to amend the ‘Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention’ guidance. It took intervention from dozens of NGOs and the support of 82 MPs via a fatal early day motion to secure a discussion of this in Parliament. 

The new rules, which come into force on 25 May, will bring potential trafficking victims under a more general policy for vulnerable people in detention.

Parliament’s Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee confirmed that the policy indicates that longer periods in detention “may be an effect for some individuals” of the updated guidance. “The House may wish to consider whether it is appropriate to downgrade statutory guidance under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 in this way,” it added.

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times: “We are fixing an anomaly in the system to make sure that those who we believe may have been a victim of modern slavery are treated consistently with all other vulnerable people in immigration detention, such as those with serious physical disabilities.”

Between 1 January 2019 and 30 September 2020, 4,102 people who engaged with the UK immigration system were held “in prison-like settings” under immigration powers. The immigration detention system has been long criticised for its impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of people seeking asylum, people whose asylum claims have failed and are awaiting deportation, and people caught up in the Windrush scandal.

Dr Frank Arnold, of the Medact charity, explained how “to take a trafficked person who is no longer under control of their abusive exploiters, and subject them to detention, is to substitute one form of powerlessness for another”.

Anti-Slavery International’s Kate Roberts told the After Exploitation organisation that “survivors of trafficking regularly tell us that their exploiters use the threat of immigration detention to control them”. 


Additional Barriers

Potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery enter the immigration system through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) having been referred by a ‘first responder’ such as a police officer, certain Home Office employees, the National Crime Agency or a designated charity including the Salvation Army. Not everyone who is a potential victim of trafficking is referred, including individuals picked up in immigration raids. 

The NRM then determines whether someone is a potential victim of trafficking and modern slavery and if they are entitled to support or should instead face deportation. People who are recognised as a potential victim of modern slavery have access to specialist, tailored support for a ‘recovery period’ of at least 45 days while their case is considered. The recovery period will “not be observed where grounds of public order prevent it”. 

Under the New Plan for Immigration, the Government has committed to “clarifying” the first decision-making ‘reasonable grounds’ stage within the trafficking claims process, as well as the definition of “public order”.

After Exploitation’s Maya Esslemont told Byline Times that the Government “wants to make it harder for people to be recognised as a victim”. 

“Once you’re in the National Referral Mechanism, the Home Office wants to raise the threshold of evidence,” she said. “This means survivors need to provide more evidence early on that they are victims. These are survivors who need immediate help.”

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times thatthe Government’s generous safeguards for victims are open to abuse by failed asylum seekers or foreign criminals who have no right to be here” and that “attempts to cheat the system diverts resources away from genuine victims of trafficking, persecution and serious harm”. 

NGOs including After Exploitation have raised concerns around the Government’s claims that the trafficking system is being “abused”. This rhetoric, they argue, is being used in order to justify restrictions on the number of victims who receive recognition and support.

The proposed immigration reforms also seek to “improve the training given to first responders” who refer potential victims to the NRM. While additional training could be a positive, Esslemont is concerned that the plan will “put more powers into non-specialists to make decisions on who should be referred”.

“There are already huge barriers to early disclosure under the current system,” she said. “Each year, more than 2,000 suspected survivors slip through the net, without a referral, after coming into contact with the authorities. It is vital that the UK commits to recognising more survivors, not making life harder for the few who come into contact with first responders.”

The Home Office spokesperson added that “the UK has led the world in protecting the victims of modern slavery and we will continue to support those who have suffered intolerable abuse at the hands of criminals and traffickers so they can rebuild their lives, while preventing misuse of the system”.

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