Lauren Crosby Medlicott speaks to modern slavery experts to understand the impact of Priti Patel’s Home Office on victims

Since becoming Home Secretary in 2019 – a position she resigned from following the selection of Liz Truss as the UK’s next Prime Minister – Priti Patel was notorious for her hard stance on asylum seekers and migration.

She justified her plans to deter people from coming to this country as a way to crackdown on human trafficking and ensure that modern slavery law is not exploited. But charities believe that her time as Home Secretary worsened the support and protection for modern slavery victims and survivors in the UK. 

Last March, Patel released a statement warning of an “alarming rise of abuse within the modern slavery system”. Following her misleading accusation, sweeping changes were introduced under the Nationality and Borders Act – the flagship legislation for the ‘New Plan for Immigration’. 

Throughout Britain, there are an estimated 130,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery.


Reversing Progress

“It undermines years of progress,” said Lucy Symington, parliamentary officer at Anti-Slavery International, speaking of the Act that was eventually enshrined into law in April. “Survivors of modern slavery have lost access to support, their rights, and the tools they need for recovery.”

Over the past decade, NGOs, survivors of modern slavery, and even the UK Government have attempted to rightly separate modern slavery and immigration. Yet during Patel’s time in office, a huge backward step was taken as the two were conflated. 

“Under increasingly hostile policies, we have seen trafficking and modern slavery viewed through the lens of immigration enforcement,” Symington told Byline Times. “As a result, modern slavery victims and survivors are losing rights and support fundamental to their recovery.

“Victims now face trauma deadlines, disqualification from support because of crimes forced to commit during their exploitation, and an increased burden of proof when going through the National Referral Mechanism.”

The latter is the framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive support.

The reforms have also made it near impossible to identify and support victims of modern slavery before they are detained or deported. 

“All of these changes have been made without the release of any evidence to show how many victims are already accessing support, and how many are missing out,” said Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation.

Esslemont is particularly concerned about access to data. Her organisation equips those on the frontline with data they need to advocate for evidence-based modern slavery policy. 

“Poor data management makes it very difficult to even critique existing government policy, let alone develop the policies we need to keep survivors safe and facilitate meaningful recovery,” she said. “It’s vital for all of us in this sector to remember that anybody with access to the facts would not support cuts to survivor support.”

The changes for modern slavery victims under the Nationality and Borders Act have been made without the release of any evidence to show how many victims are accessing support and how many are missing out, according to Esslemont.

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The Rwanda Scheme 

Not only does Priti Patel’s legislation harm current victims and survivors, it also arguably creates them. 

“The Rwanda policy puts vulnerable people at great risk of exploitation,” said Symington. “This cruel removal policy will not disrupt people-smuggling operations or make people safer. The only people this policy will benefit are human traffickers.

“By placing individuals already vulnerable to exploitation into a country with a weaker modern slavery prevention system, they enter an environment where they will be at an elevated risk from human traffickers.”

While the Nationality and Borders and Act and the Rwanda scheme – under which some asylum seekers arriving in the UK can be deported – have been the most prominent decisions on modern slavery policy, Focus on Labour Explosion’s CEO Lucila Granada told Byline Times there have been other less visible decisions that impact those being abused. 

“A College of Policing, HMICFRS and IOPC investigation concluded that the Home Office should explore protecting those reporting abuse from immigration enforcement actions,” she said. Instead, the Home Office chose to introduce a temporary measure covering only those engaged in active criminal prosecutions investigations.

“Expecting victims to feel better able to come forward because of this temporary and limited protection is either completely detached from reality or extremely cynical as a response,” Granda added. “With this decision, the Home Office has offered, once again, an invisible cloak to abusers targeting migrant workers.”

In July, the Slavery and Human Trafficking (Definition of Victim) Regulations were introduced as secondary legislation to the Nationality and Borders Act to narrowly define what a ‘real’ human trafficking victim is. It is another decision campaigners believe chisels away at the rights of victims and survivors.

For Granada, recent changes “cannot be attributed to a single minister, but are examples of the longer-term, harmful strategy of politicising migration, of using the most vulnerable groups to give voters the impression of control”.


Child Victims

Early in the Act’s conception, charities working with exploited children warned that the legislation would not improve the protection and support for child survivors of trafficking, a form of modern slavery. They argued it would deepen the existing child protection crisis. 

“Identifying victims is not an immigration matter but a safeguarding matter – and in the case of children, it clearly needs a child protection response,” argued Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK. “However, there was no specific reference to the needs and rights of children and young people in the Nationality and Borders Bill.”

This lack of special protections for children triggered widespread alarm. “Lobbying resulted in one of the very few UK Government concessions which means that children will not be penalised for missing deadlines on disclosing their trauma in the new ‘trafficking notices’ that the Act creates, but they will still be subject to them,” said Durr. 

ECPAT UK is currently working on a research project with Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Bedfordshire to understand the experiences of young people who have experienced modern slavery and are also subject to immigration control. 

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“They say these procedures undermine the recognition and realisation of their human rights and place them at risk of further abuse and exploitation,” Durr said. “Many of them have told us that the UK immigration procedures are often worse than their experiences of exploitation. They talk about the distressing nature of the immigration process itself, and the difficulties presented by living for years in immigration ‘limbo’, while decisions on their status remained outstanding.”

In 2019-20, only 2% of child trafficking victims with irregular immigration status in the UK were granted the leave to remain they are entitled to under international law.

The next parliamentary session is set to introduce a new Modern Slavery Bill, an update to the existing Modern Slavery Act 2015, to tackle supply chain transparency and those in the anti-trafficking sector are worried survivor support will “be in the crosshairs” once again. 

Symington and Durr would like to see improved victim identification and support, particularly child victims, and an end to the use of modern slavery victims as pawns in anti-immigration campaigns. They also believe urgent steps need to be taken to investigate and prosecute perpetrators so that survivors see injustices addressed and the modern slavery business model is undermined.

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times: “The UK has led the world in protecting victims of modern slavery and we will continue to identify and support those who have suffered intolerable abuse at the hands of criminals and traffickers.”

“Those arriving in the UK illegally via dangerous and unnecessary routes may be relocated to Rwanda to claim asylum and have the chance to rebuild their lives there,” they added. “We have been clear from the start that no one will be relocated if it is unsafe or inappropriate for them, and our thorough assessment of Rwanda has found that it is a fundamentally safe and secure country, with a track record of supporting asylum seekers.”

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