Telegraph complaint: Slavery support is not a ‘loophole’

Along with 20 other NGOs, we have submitted the below complaint to the press regulator, IPSO. On 16th August, a national newspaper ran a front-page story claiming that recognised trafficking victims were exploiting a ‘loophole’. The Telegraph claimed that a rise in trafficking cases was indicative of abuse of the system, despite thousands of survivors going undetected each year.

Our complaint and signatories are below. If you’d like to complain to IPSO about other inaccurate trafficking stories, we have created a guide alongside Freedom United and Anti Slavery International here.

Dear IPSO,

In order to comply with the spirit of the Editors’ Code, it is vital that public interest is maintained, through freedom of expression and the ability to contribute to matters of public debate. However, the Editors’ Code makes it abundantly clear that, in operating in the public interest, the public must be able to trust that they will not be misled.

On 16 August 2022, The Telegraph ran a front-page story entitled Modern slavery law ‘is biggest loophole’ for migrants, whilst an accompanying opinion piece entitled End the scourge of bogus modern slavery claims, an opinion piece by former Minister Chris Philp MP, formed the basis of this story and ran in the same edition. Within this reporting, inaccurate claims were made about the scale and nature of protections offered to trafficking victims under UK law. Meanwhile, in a bid underpin a newly-announced editorial stance against the Modern Slavery Act,[1] The Telegraph relied on trafficking referrals statistics, with their rise painted as a pertinent, immigration-related threat despite these totals including UK victims without due mention of the statistics’ limitations. These inaccuracies shared between both a comment piece and general reporting further served to render comment, conjecture and fact ‘indistinguishable’ from one another, in breach of 1.i.v. the Editors’ Code.

A fuller account of breaches of the Editor’s Code are highlighted below, and are submitted jointly to the IPSO Committee by After Exploitation, Anti Slavery International, Room to Heal, Rebuild Project – East Midlands, City of Sanctuary, Hope at Home, Rene Cassin, Good Chance Theatre, Freedom From Torture, Jesuit Refugee Service UK, AFRUCA Safeguarding Children, UK BME Anti-Slavery Network, Hope for Justice, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, Freedom United, Anti Trafficking Monitoring Group, Love146, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Voice of Domestic Workers, and Detention Action.

  1. Misrepresentation of law

1.a. Trafficking exemptions

Philp’s Telegraph article claims that “Crucially, once someone’s modern slavery claim has been accepted, they cannot be removed from the UK – even if they are a dangerous foreign criminal.”

This is untrue. There is no automatic grant of leave to remain for trafficking victims, as a trafficking status alone cannot protect individuals from deportation. In February 2021, then-Safeguarding Minister, Victoria Atkins, confirmed that there is no automatic grant of leave to remain for trafficking victims, and such a measure would not be supported in the foreseeable future:[2]

“Immigration decisions for victims of modern slavery are made on a case-by-case basis, considering the individual circumstances of the case.”

The UK Government’s position is clear: Under the Modern Slavery Act, trafficking status does not afford automatic protection from deportation, even in cases where those issued deportation orders are recognised as vulnerable or have no offending history. To claim that trafficking status could prevent the deportation of a ‘dangerous foreign criminals’ is misleading.

1.b. Trafficking referrals through immigration

To justify claims that trafficking recognition is being employed by ‘dangerous foreign criminals’ Philp claimed that a rise in immigration-related referrals:

“The most frequent referral route for modern slavery claims is now through the immigration system. Often, it is made shortly after meeting an immigration lawyer for the first time… ”

However, the most frequent referral route for trafficking cases has always been through central Government departments which have data sharing agreements with, or undertake work for, immigration enforcement purposes. The UK’s top trafficking referrer has been ‘central Government agencies’ (encompassing Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, Home Office, and National Crime Agency) in 2015 (50%),[3] 2016 (51%),[4] 2017 (44%),[5] 2018 (40%),[6] 2019 (44%),[7] 2020 (32%),[8] 2021 (37%)[9] and the most recent quarter in 2022 (50%).[10] The Home Office itself states that the suspected drop from 44% to 32% in 2020 is due victims being less visible to border force due to Covid travel restrictions.[11] For this reason, The Telegraph’s representation of data is incorrect and, whilst Philp is free to editorialise on the merits of providing survivor protection, we are concerned that incorrect data is relied upon to underpin an argument for the roll back of support.

1.c. Available support

The UK’s trafficking determination process (known as the National Referral Mechanism) is not an immigration determination process. It only determines whether the Home Office believes a person to have been trafficked, including UK and non UK nationals. Whilst survivors of slavery recognised under the National Referral Mechanism can apply for support, such as safe housing, the decision to grant immigration security is considered separately. This is because, whilst some countries offer guaranteed immigration status or resettlement schemes to victims of modern slavery or trafficking, such as through the ‘T Visa’ in the United States, the UK does not. Charities have consistently called for temporary immigration protection for victims, but the UK Government confirmed in 2021 that this was not current policy and would not be enacted for the foreseeable future.[12]

However, the 16 August article, Modern slavery law ‘is biggest loophole’ for migrants, claimed:

“…A review of the Act would end low thresholds on proof, limit the number of claims and make sure the system was “about the recovery of victims rather than an open immigration route”.

Meanwhile, the accompanying opinion piece by former Home Officer Under-Secretary, Chris Philp claimed slavery protections:

“inadvertantly turned into one of the biggest loopholes in our immigration system”

As stated by Government spokespeople, the National Referral Mechanism does not contain any immigration provisions, nor will it do so in the future. These functions are separate. However, The Telegraph’s editorialising labels the trafficking decision making process an “open immigration route”. We hold that describing trafficking decision making as an “open immigration route” is a significant breach of section 1.i. of the Code, as readers would feasibly be misled to believe that the NRM is “in” the “immigration system” as Philp claims, or wrongly believe it offers immigration protections to victims when it does not. For context, this reporting is tantamount to describing access to a GP’s surgery as an ‘open immigration route’ because a GP letter may one day be used to evidence some peoples’ immigration cases in the future.

  1. Misrepresentation of data

2.a Misrepresentation of data: ‘Thousands’ of cases

Philp replies to a claim in The Telegraph, made on 11 August in an article entitled Record number of Albanians claiming to be victims of slavery to avoid deportation,[13] claiming that the reportage told of “illegal immigrants seeking to avoid return” by raising trafficking cases. Philp said the reporting was “painfully familiar to me as a former immigration minister, where I saw this play out across thousands of cases.”

Chris Philp was appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) on 13 February 2020 and resigned on 16 September 2021. In year-end statistics covering both 2020[14] and 2021,[15] no data has been released on the number of vexatious claims made by victims, nor has information been provided to the Anti Slavery Commissioner’s office in its capacity as the only independent agency able to request such data under a memorandum of understanding. In response to claims that immigration offenders were ‘exploiting’ the NRM, the Anti Slavery Commissioner expressed concern around the evidence base for these claims: [16]

“Some of the provisions in the Bill have been driven by government’s concerns regarding increasing numbers of arrivals by small boats [claiming to have been trafficked]… I have still not been able to confirm actual numbers. I submitted a formal request to the SCA in March 2021 and was informed in November 2021 that the Home Office could not provide this data.”

Whilst Philp is entitled to voice opinion. we raise this point in order to appeal for further information on what evidence was requested by The Telegraph editor to verify the claim that “thousands” of “illegal immigrants” are raising trafficking cases, in light of the documented difficulties civil society has had in trying to secure this same evidence.

2.b. Conflating recognition with protection

As clarified, trafficking status does not include a grant of immigration protection for victims despite appeals by civil society. However, The Telegraph’s front-page article, like Philp’s opinion piece, conflates trafficking status with immigration protection despite these being separate processes.

“The numbers [trafficking victims] allowed to stay had risen from 3,000 in 2015 to 16,000 this year”

First, these figures correspond with the total number of trafficking cases raised in each respective year: 3,266 in 2015 and 15,896 in 2022 based on the first two quarters of this years’ statistics multiplied twice. However, not only are trafficking and immigration determinations completely separate processes, the totals used by The Telegraph includes UK nationals, who would have no reason to raise a trafficking case to ‘avoid deportation’. In 2015, 191 trafficking cases included UK nationals (6%)[17] compared to 973 of Q1 2022 (26%)[18] and 1,013 in Q2 2022 (24%).[19] In practice, this means that even if The Telegraph’ editorial position is that every single non-UK national raising a trafficking case is doing so fraudulently, the figures cited ‘in the last year’ would still be 25% lower than those reported.

Finally if, as suspected, the figure “16,000 this year” is referring to Q1 and Q2 2022 multiplied twice (15,890) this is not clarified in the article. This unclear wording, presented with incorrect context and without recognition of the data’s limitations, could reasonably mislead people to think that 16,000 people have claimed to be trafficked in 2022 so far and solely for the purposes of gaining immigration security which is incorrect given the large proportion who are UK nationals without even accounting for the numbers with other forms of immigration security such as EU settled status, refugee status, or work visas secured after exploitation. It is clear that, in this regard, The Telegraph failed to ‘distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact’, thus breaching 1. iv of the Editors’ Code.

We urge the Committee to take action against misleading statements as to the nature of survivor support in the UK, which serves to further undermine the already-inconsistent rights afforded to victims of this serious crime.

[3] (Pg 26)
[4] (Pg 11)
[5] (Pg 13)
[6] (Pg 14)
[7] (Pg 5)
[8] (Pg 8)
[16] (Pg 62)

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