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.