UK, the global leader combating modern slavery, is falling short at home

by Patrick Burland | International Organization for Migration
Thursday, 18 October 2018 09:00 GMT

Passengers are seen riding on the London Eye wheel with the Houses of Parliament behind in London, Britain, December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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UK government is on its own ‘cliff edge’ in proving its commitment to radical reform to help victims of human trafficking and modern slavery

Patrick Burland is senior project officer, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at IOM, the UN Migration Agency in the UK.

In recent years, the United Kingdom has positioned itself as a champion against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Theresa May, UK Prime Minister has proudly declared that ‘the UK is leading the world with our efforts to stamp out modern slavery’ and even led a  session of the UN General Assembly on tackling modern slavery in 2017. More recently, the UK government’s aid agency, DFID, announced funding for a number of projects tackling human trafficking across Asia and Africa. On a recent trip to Nigeria in August 2018, Prime Minister May announced funding for an IOM, the UN Migration Agency, project supporting 1,700 Nigerian migrants and victims of human trafficking and modern slavery returning to Nigeria from Libyan detention centres.

IOM commends the UK government’s efforts worldwide and urges that similar ambition and concrete progress be seen on the domestic front, especially with respect to improving the identification and support for those victims of human trafficking and modern slavery who are here in the UK. In October 2017 the UK government announced plans to radically improve' the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the system to identify and support victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. One year later it seems that the rhetoric has not yet translated into reality.

One of the reforms announced in October 2017 was the creation of a new single expert body within the Home Office to ‘separate’ decisions about whether a person is legally recognised as a victim of human trafficking or modern slavery from the immigration system to reduce concerns about the potential conflict of interest in decision making. This concern was notably outlined by the Joint Committee on Draft Modern Slavery Bill in 2014 who declared “whether a person is a victim of modern slavery and their immigration status must be kept entirely and overtly separate.’ The new single expert body is expected to begin making decisions from April 2019. Given the UK government’s own acknowledgement of the significance of this reform, it was important that it should be implemented in a shorter period then the current 18-months between announcement and realisation.

Another centre-piece reform announced in October 2017 was the trebling of the length of 'move on' support from 14 days to 45 days for people identified as a victim of human trafficking or modern slavery. This period of time is critical because it is the time when a person can continue to access support such as safe house accommodation and counselling after having received a decision on their status as a victim of trafficking from the UK government.

At the time of writing, this reform has not yet been implemented. People who are given a negative decision still have just 48 hours to exit support. Those who the UK government have officially confirmed as a victim of human trafficking or modern slavery still have only 14 days to exit support. Although the UK government does not collect information on what happens to people after they receive a decision, it is well known that some confirmed victims exiting safe houses end up in homeless shelters, many others will go missing.  

Providing confirmed victims with 45 days move on support is unquestionably better than 14 days but this still leaves vulnerable people facing the ‘cliff edge’ that comes when they receive their decision. Under the current policy, the confirmation of a person as a victim of human trafficking marks the beginning of the end of their entitlement to support. This is comparable to being able to access the National Health Service until a doctor confirms that you are unwell.  

Right now, the UK government is on its own ‘cliff edge’ in proving its commitment to radical reform to help victims of human trafficking and modern slavery here in the UK. In just over a month’s time the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill will have its second reading in the House of Commons, after passing the House of Lords earlier this year. This Bill would provide 12 months’ leave to remain for all confirmed victims of human trafficking and modern slavery to access valuable support and assistance. This would mean that victims would no longer face a ‘cliff edge’ when they get a decision and would provide confirmed victims of human trafficking and modern slavery more of the time and support necessary for long-term recovery, treating them with dignity and respect after the severity of the violations committed against them.

In six months’ time, in April 2019, we will mark a decade since the introduction of the NRM in the UK. Notwithstanding the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 and the establishment of an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner in 2014, there has been too little progress in improving the support and protection of victims in the decade that has passed since the NRM was introduced in April 2009.

The UK government should approach improving its domestic responses to the support and identification of victims of human trafficking and modern slavery with the same energy and urgency it has shown in its international responses to addressing what Theresa May has called the ‘great human rights issue of our time.’ By supporting the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, the UK government has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to ensuring that the ‘welfare of victims and potential victims is at the heart of everything we do.