Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ for migrants endangers victims of trafficking.

Theresa May claims to be tackling 'modern slavery' - but her immigration policies put vulnerable people further at risk, writes Zoe Gardner.

October 30, 2017
5 min read

Photo: Loz Pycock

Theresa May has made tackling ‘modern slavery’ one of her major policy priorities, with the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 trumpeted as a victory for anti-trafficking and human rights campaigners. But in fact she has worsened conditions for more and more victims of trafficking, forcing them deeper into a web of exploitation and abuse.

There is a rank hypocrisy in May’s pronouncements on tackling modern slavery, as much of the rest of her policy programme as Home Secretary and Prime Minister is focused on further securitising borders, in order to  create “a hostile environment” for immigrants. This effectively targets and further criminalises the very victims she purports to be so concerned for. The key fact that May obscures by her approach to this issue is that victims of modern slavery, or trafficking, are very often foreign nationals, and as such made vulnerable to abuse by her draconian anti-immigration agenda. Victims are all too often treated as criminals and immigration offenders rather than victims of serious crime, deported rather than supported.

May’s Modern Slavery Act did make some positive changes, but its focus lies markedly on policing and enforcement – rather than providing for protection of victims. This leads to situations where people who have been trafficked are re-victimised by UK authorities, rather than offered protection and redress. Campaigners have noted, for example, an alarming rise in the number of illegal cannabis farms in the UK, often staffed by trafficked children from Vietnam who are unpaid and vulnerable to severe physical and sexual abuse. Despite the fact that the Act bans the prosecution of victims of trafficking for crimes they were forced to commit by their abusers, including drug cultivation, many of these victims are tried as criminals when the cannabis farm is detected by law enforcement. Children in these circumstances are variously either disbelieved, or treated as competent adults and consequently denied adequate care and guidance.

Even for those who are recognised as children, the risk of re-trafficking is very high because of this lack of focus on protection of victims in the law. Care homes and foster homes are often known to gang masters, who find it easy to regain control of children even once they are supposed to be in a system to protect them. Children regularly disappear from safe houses – and Anti-Slavery UK estimates that a third of victims are re-trafficked.

Victims are also at risk of re-trafficking if they are deported back to the same places where the networks of traffickers initially found them, in a cycle of deportation, trafficking and abuse that the UK authorities’ job it is to break.

May is also systematically closing down any options that victims may have of escaping their abusers, with measures that criminalise and exclude undocumented migrants, forcing them deeper underground and into the hands of traffickers. ‘Hostile environment’ policies aim to make life in the UK as difficult as possible for undocumented migrants, by making it impossible for them to open a bank account, rent a property, or get a driver’s license. This is fantastic news for those who seek to control and abuse vulnerable migrants. Being unable to open a bank account means migrants are forced to rely on cash, or on lodging money with others, which obviously leaves them at risk of financial exploitation.

The new offence introduced in the 2016 Immigration Act of “illegal working” is especially pernicious as it provides abusers with the means by which to threaten to report a victim without status to the authorities for a crime. Criminalising victims in this way is entirely at odds with the purported aim of the Modern Slavery Act.

All of this is damning enough for the PM’s supposed commitment to ending the “burning injustice” of slavery, but it is potentially only the start. This government’s obsession with cutting immigration yet further is fuelling more policies that lead directly to increases in this type of exploitation. If Brexit spells the end of free movement of people, yet more migrants will be exposed to draconian immigration enforcement that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and criminalisation.

Tellingly, victims from non-European countries are currently four times less likely to be recognised as victims and offered protection when they enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) that identifies victims of trafficking. They are thus far more likely to be treated as immigration offenders and deported, rather than protected. The assault on European migrants’ rights being pursued by this government through Brexit will inevitably put Europeans at risk of equally poor treatment.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death