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All change or business as usual? The UK’s anti-trafficking response is still failing victims

October 28, 2016

In its latest report, the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) welcomed the changes made by the UK since the Group conducted its first evaluation of the UK’s response to human trafficking in 2012. Following GRETA’s recommendation, dedicated legislation was introduced in October 2013 to combat human trafficking — or rather ‘modern slavery’, culminating in the adoption of the Modern Slavery Act in March 2015. The position of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has also been created, and additional funding has been allocated to the pursuit of traffickers.

However, while GRETA recognised the increased attention and political commitment to fighting human trafficking in the UK, the report also highlighted significant gaps, in particular with regard to the prevention of human trafficking for labour exploitation, victim support and access to justice for trafficking victims.

Prevention of human trafficking for the purpose labour exploitation

According to the National Crime Agency (NCA), between 2012-2015, labour exploitation was the second most prevalent form of exploitation among potential trafficking victims referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) (35% of all referrals), followed by domestic servitude (13%), and surpassed only narrowly by sexual exploitation (36%). An emphasis on the prevention, not simply the persecution of this crime, is therefore needed to ensure vulnerable workers are not victimised.

The report by GRETA welcomed efforts made since the first evaluation to prevent trafficking for labour exploitation, and in particular the extension of the mandate of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (soon to become the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority). However, GRETA echoed FLEX’s calls for more proactive identification of cases of human trafficking for labour exploitation, and noted that adequate and sufficient resources will be needed to ensure the new GLAA can fulfil its role of safeguarding and enforcing workers’ rights. GRETA urged the UK Government to strengthen the capacity and remit of the relevant inspectorates (Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, Employment Agency Inspectorate in Northern Ireland, GLA/GLAA, HMRC, Health and Safety Executive), and to ensure ongoing training is provided to all inspectorate staff.

The Group also noted the concerns expressed by leading UK experts and civil society that the new Immigration Act offence of illegal working will effectively increase undocumented workers’ vulnerability to human trafficking and exploitation and will obstruct victim identification efforts. Monitoring of the impact of this new offence and of the implementation of the principle of non-punishment of trafficking victims was recommended by the European experts.

Victim protection and support

Reviews have been carried out to address some of the concerns raised in GRETA’s first evaluation report, including a review of the Overseas Domestic Workers Visa system and of the National Referral Mechanism for victims of trafficking. However, the recommendations made in these reviews have only been partially implemented, if at all.

GRETA has joined UK civil society and service providers in calling on the UK government to ensure victims of trafficking receive adequate support and assistance, according to their individual needs, beyond the 45 days of support currently provided through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). Without sustainable and sufficient support, victims of trafficking will continue to be left without recovery and reintegration.

Access to justice for trafficking victims

The Group of Experts has urged the UK Government to act immediately to ensure access to compensation for victims of trafficking. Since GRETA’s first evaluation, reparation orders have been introduced by section 8 of the Modern Slavery Act with a view to improving compensation for victims. However, this form of compensation is only available to a small proportion of victims who see their exploiters prosecuted and convicted. The latest report by the Group of Experts largely supports research published by FLEX earlier this year, finding that the avenues to compensation currently available to victims of trafficking are not fit for purpose. Some of the key barriers to compensation faced by victims of trafficking include the lack of a specific remedy for trafficking victims, dearth of information and lack of awareness of victims’ rights and options, difficulties accessing legal aid, and the lack of victim support throughout the legal process. As a result, few victims are able to access compensation, and most trafficked persons are left without justice.

The findings of GRETA’s latest evaluation show the need for a rights-based response to human trafficking. While we cannot deny the importance of pursuing and bringing perpetrators of this crime to justice, a renewed emphasis must be placed on the rights and needs of trafficking victims. Until then, the UK will continue to fail the victims it is purportedly seeking to protect.