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‘Quitting the ECHR Would Create a ‘Fertile Environment’ for Modern Slavery’

Suella Braverman’s wish to leave the European Court of Human Rights would empower those seeking to enslave some of the world’s most vulnerable people

Suella Braverman. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

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Suella Braverman this week expressed her wish for the UK to leave the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This has been described as a political move to shore up her support among right-wing Conservative MPs, following a series of policy failures, including the evacuation of the Bibby Stockholm asylum barge after Legionella bacteria was found on board.

However, while leaving the ECHR might help Braverman’s political career, it would also put at risk what is left of the UK’s support for victims of modern slavery.

The passage of the Illegal Migration Bill earlier this year catalysed a series of policies that have stripped down the support available for victims of modern slavery and has resulted in the UK being accused of falling in breach of the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Should the UK now also leave the ECHR, as Braverman desires, it would therefore put at risk the fundamental rights and freedoms of some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

It would also be the latest in a series of measures which have, as Phillipa Roberts, Head of Policy and Research for Hope for Justice told Byline Times “taken ten years worth of steps backwards” for the rights of modern slavery victims.

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Victims Betrayed

Braverman claimed in her interview with BBC’s Radio 4’s Today Programme that the ECHR is “a politicised court”, “interventionist” and “treading on the territory of national sovereignty”.

However, in reality the ECHR consists of judges that are entirely independent of their country of origin and do not represent either applicants or States.

It is true to say that the ECHR itself has faced some legitimate criticism of its handling of modern slavery cases, including over the Ranstev case in which a Russian national was trafficked into prostitution, subjected to sexual exploitation, and later found dead in Cyprus.

However, it has also played a crucial role in protecting modern slavery victims. If UK courts are unable to implement meaningful rights obligations, victims are forced to appeal to the ECHR to have their rights recognised by the UK Government. Therefore, without tthe UK being subject to the ECHR, then “freedom from torture and inhumane and degrading treatment and asking for freedom from slavery and forced labor” will go out the window, explained Ms Roberts. “The ECHR is an integral part of the legal framework that protects victims. And that’s regardless, actually, of whether the person who is a victim is a foreign national or a British national.”

In fact 25% of victims of modern slavery on British soil are British nationals meaning that the ECHR is as vital to people of British heritage as it is to those seeking to enter the country. 

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Human trafficking in the UK remains an expanding problem, with the number of victims increasing each year. The Annual Report for the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) data for 2022 noted 16,938 potential victims of modern slavery referred to the Home Office – a 33% increase compared to the preceding year, which stood at 12,706. This was the highest annual number since the NRM began publication in 2009.

Ms Roberts added that the removal of the UK from the ECHR would penalise victims for how they enter the country. It would deny them important access to identification, safeguarding and support, which also ultimately impacts on the ability of victims to provide evidence in prosecution cases and bring perpetrators to justice.

A ‘Fertile Environment’ for Exploiters

This would just be the latest part of the Government’s downgrading of support for modern slavery victims. As Hope for Justice’s 10 amendments for the Illegal Migration Bill states: “The Government’s policies are actively increasing vulnerability to exploitation, hampering identification and access to support which in turn hampers efforts to investigate cases and bring perpetrators to justice.

“The Government is creating a fertile, not hostile, environment for exploiters. […] Hostile migration policies and hostile policies towards victims of trafficking more broadly are significantly increasing vulnerability to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.”

Ms Roberts added that current Home Office policy “will actually make the situation much worse rather than better and actually allow both people smugglers and human traffickers to act with impunity”.

One key issue is that modern slavery policy is now being equated with immigration and asylum policy, where policies aimed at victims of modern slavery often fall into the umbrella of policies for asylum seekers. 

This adds to the dangerous rhetoric suggesting that victims of modern slavery are simply attempting to enter the country through illegal means, and may not be victims at all, but merely abusing the system.

However, official statistics show that 90% of all cases in 2021 referred to the NRM were positive, meaning that the applicant was in fact a genuine victim of modern slavery.

Yet, this percentage dropped in the first quarter of 2023 by 30%. This is because the process of classing applications as ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ they are victims of modern slavery, has been hardened by the Government.

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In a lot of cases, victims now have difficulty providing the objective evidence required and consequently their applications have little hope of success. This is because of their lack of access to health and social care to corroborate their application, the trauma they have endured leading them to struggle to hand over evidence through fear of being re-captured by their traffickers and shame around their experiences, particularly if they were coerced into committing criminal acts.

The fact that these hugely complex cases are being placed under the umbrella of asylum seeker policy means that judgements of their cases are inevitably clouded with bias.

Ms. Roberts explained that the country needs these policies to be rooted in evidence, “because actually we’re not going to have good policies that are protecting people’s rights if they’re not rooted in evidence and are not rooted in these international frameworks”. 

She added that “we need to get within these policies to ensure that victims of modern slavery are appropriately identified and have rights and holistic support, so that they can not just survive the experience, but thrive in society”.

There have been a number of calls to improve the evidence available on the prevalence of modern slavery in the UK. It is a contested topic. As Dr James Cockayne, Professor of Global Politics and Anti-Slavery at the University of Nottingham, said in a 2015 report on modern slavery, “without good data on where slaves are, how they become slaves and what happens to them, anti‐slavery policy will remain guesswork”. British statistician Professor Bernard Silverman has also claimed that “the specific estimated number of victims for the UK cannot be regarded as accurate or reliable”.

The risk is that if the UK was removed from the ECHR, it would lose the universal mediator that ensures that an unbiased framework of rights is applied in all cases.

Victims of modern slavery would therefore have even less chance of accessing the support they need and would be even more likely to disappear through the cracks of the UK’s asylum policy than they currently are.

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