We cannot fight modern slavery when victims hide in fear of deportation

Heeding a little-publicised call to action in this year’s Global Slavery Index could transform the way we treat victims, writes Maya Esslemont.

August 15, 2018 · 6 min read

The Global Slavery Index is increasingly heralded as the most ambitious report of its kind. This year’s country-by-country ranking attempts to quantify even the most elusive nations’ responsiveness to human trafficking.

Yet, nestled amongst the eye-catching themes of North Korean despotism, global conflict, and our own consumption of slave-produced goods, was a little-publicised recommendation of vital import to a post-Windrush UK. Survivors of human trafficking, the report claims, must be supported by governments “regardless of immigration status or nationality”.

The report estimates that there are 136,000 individuals living in slavery in the UK. In theory, we treat these victims very differently from ‘other immigrants’ with a differing set of histories. We recognise that those grappling with the aftermath of trafficking need heightened medical, emotional and practical help. This is provided through a framework called the ‘National Referral Mechanism’.

However, many are too scared to comply with some of the conditions set by the NRM, which include a requirement for victims to pursue their assailants through court action. For those contending with the residual fear left by historic violence, psychological manipulation, and familial threats by well-connected criminals, the prospect of relatively conspicuous court action seems like an unnecessary risk when compliance does not guarantee residency.

This fear deters many victims of this complex crime from coming forward, especially those who do not fit within the neat parameters of the NRM – favouring, as it does, those plucked from police raids, willing to fill in the right paperwork, and stand defiantly in court a matter of days after rescue. In reality, this leaves front-line professionals, such as doctors and housing officers, as the second line of defence when it comes to combating slavery.

Fiona David, Executive Director of Research at the Walk Free Foundation, which authors the Global Slavery Index, said: “Globally, not just in the UK, we see a trend of richer countries relying heavily on immigration authorities to identify modern slavery victims”

“The risk is that, first and foremost, an Immigration Officer’s job is to find people who are not supposed to be in the country. They should certainly receive training…but this shouldn’t be the only entry point for victims to seek help.”

“We need people [victims of modern slavery] to be able to seek help from the right service providers.” According to David, these services include housing, healthcare, and employment support.

Whilst renewed training and awareness amongst the sectors mentioned by David offer promise to those trafficked into the UK, a number of measures are running counter to professional’s duty of care towards modern slaves. Under the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, a set of measures introduced in 2010 in order to make residency “as difficult as possible” for those without leave to remain in the UK, social housing and healthcare providers have penalised or withdrawn support for those without passports or documentation. It is impossible to recognise human trafficking victims who, by the nature of their circumstance, are wholly unlikely to have access to their own paperwork, within environments that penalise those without passports.

At a time when as many as one in eight healthcare professionals are reporting potential victims of trafficking, NHS England’s 2017 decision to introduce secondary care passport checks came at a spectacularly ill-advised time. Equally, a number of human rights charities were forced to voice similar concerns last year, when it emerged that a handful of homelessness charities referred some beneficiaries to the Home Office for further action regarding their residency.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ Legal Director, Chai Patel, today emphasised a need to avoid “putting victims at risk” of deportation or detention. “It is absolutely essential that anyone coming forward to the police, or other parts of Government, for protection from traffickers are also protected from the Home Office’s immigration enforcers. Otherwise we will continue to fail trafficking victims.”

Meanwhile, human rights charity Liberty, an public signatory standing firm against last year’s collusion between housing charities and the Home Office, believes that ‘hostile environment’ policies are still deterring trafficked people from accessing help.

“The tentacles of the Government’s hostile environment reach into crucial services that everyone should have the right to access. By introducing border controls in hospitals, social services and police stations, ministers force people to choose between deportation and exploitation, and push frontline workers into policing immigration rather than offering support” said Gracie Bradley, Liberty’s Advocacy Manager.

Whilst every first responder, from police officers to social workers, must receive the training they need to recognise trafficking, we must acknowledge that victims of exploitation deserve protection regardless of the popularity of their immigration status.

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