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Sector response: “We must support, not suppress, survivors of modern slavery”

We condemn measures proposed by the UK’s Prime Minister on Tuesday (13 December 2022), which would subject survivors of all forms of labour abuse and sexual exploitation to more scrutiny and less support. Regressive in substance, these proposals would significantly weaken the UK’s framework for identifying victims of modern slavery.

Survivors of modern slavery risk everything to come forward. These measures fail to recognise this. Exploitation is often maintained through violence, threats against victims and their loved ones. Some perpetrators will even secure victims’ silence with the threat of deportation, promising that they will report victims to the Home Office for ‘immigration infractions’.

Rishi Sunak’s plans would make the modern slavery system even more hostile.

If realised, the plans would “significantly raise the threshold someone must meet to be considered a modern slave” by requiring victims to provide more evidence in support of their referral at the first ‘decision making stage’, which is often within days of leaving exploitation. These provisions also give ministers new powers to change the threshold for decision making without Parliamentary scrutiny.

Access to the current identification and support system, the National Referral Mechanism, is already unattainable to many victims as it is impossible for survivors to self-refer. Even under the current system, survivors are considered victims on the basis that they can defy the odds by disclosing abuse before support is in place, are referred by a designated first-responder with enough training to understand slavery, and be deemed a ‘potential’ then ‘confirmed’ victim by Home office decision makers. The burden on survivors is already so great that at least 3,190 potential victims were recognised by first responders last year but did not consent to engage with the identification process. In the case of children, these proposals are particularly dangerous. Child victims do not consent to being referred and are offered few additional protections.

If yesterday’s proposals become reality, we would put victims under even more duress, earlier in their support journey, by demanding they evidence their abuse before they have had access to the essentials they need to recover, such as accommodation, legal advice, counselling, or even the promise of protection. It is not realistic to expect survivors to provide a flawless paper trail of their trauma, potentially whilst still in danger and unsure of where they will sleep that night, nor is it realistic to assume that people will be in a position to produce objective evidence to satisfy the authorities without the assistance of legal advice. This is not how we earn the trust of people suffering abuse. This is not how we earn the trust of people suffering abuse.

These measures would prevent survivors speaking out

In Parliament, Sunak stated that the Modern Slavery Act was ‘not designed’ to handle the number of survivors now identified by Government. Rather than work to identify the root cause of widespread exploitation, this administration has instead resolved to pretend that survivors do not exist, impeding justice in the process. Sadly, modern slavery will always persist when governments are prepared to look the other way.

Support is already at breaking point

Under Part 5 of the Nationality and Borders Act, passed earlier this year, the Government has granted itself new powers to deny survivors recognition or support. Victims can now be deemed ‘not credible’, due to factors outside of their control including the time it takes victims to disclose abuse, or criminalised activity they may have been forced to commit as a result of their exploitation. These measures were condemned by the Independent Anti Slavery Commissioner and the Victims’ Commissioner, due to the consequences they would have on survivors’ and their trust in the system.

With only 1 in 5 (21%) survivors granted all the support requested during their Recovery Needs Assessment, it is clear that the current system is already impoverished and focussed on targets rather than victims.

We must support, not suppress, survivors of modern slavery.

Signatories

After Exploitation
African Rainbow Family
Anti Slavery International
Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU)
Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID)
Asylum Matters
Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID)
City of Sanctuary
Coram Children’s Legal Centre
Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre
Children’s Society
Choose Love
Detention Action
Duncan Lewis (Public Law)
Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT)
Freedom From Torture
Freedom United
Friends of the Drop In for Asylum Seekers and Refugees
Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)
Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group
Good Chance Theatre
Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU)
Helen Bamber Foundation
Hope at Home
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)
JustRight Scotland
Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network
Migrant Voice
No Accommodation Network (NACCOM)
Our Second Home
Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL),
Rebuild Project
René Cassin
Scottish Refugee Council
Sophie Hayes Foundation
West London Welcomes
Women for Refugee Women

Dr Ella Cockbain, Associate Professor, Department of Security and Crime Science, University of London

References

Additional notes

Kate Roberts, Head of Policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), said:

“The Government made a commitment to preventing modern slavery through their long awaited new Modern Slavery Strategy. This is undermined by these recent announcements. Narrowing access to identification and support systems because the systems ‘cannot cope’ is to give up on victims who are entitled to support. It will leave victims in, or drive them back into exploitation. Of course the numbers identified are too high as we are not doing enough to prevent people from being exploited. We need to address the structural causes of exploitation which prevent people accessing their rights or leaving exploitation early on. This means making sure potential victims feel safe to come forward.”

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