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Destroying lives; the UK’s rhetoric, legislation and policies demonise people seeking safety including victims of trafficking

June 12, 2023
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Kate Roberts

Head of Policy

By Kate Elsayed-Ali, Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) and Kate Roberts, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)

The UK’s ‘Illegal Migration’ bill is a toxic and unworkable piece of legislation. It is a charter for exploitation, trafficking and modern slavery.

The ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ creates the conditions for exploitation by criminalising people and denying them even the hope of safety. If the bill passes in its current form people who have been trafficked to the UK will be barred from protections due to the way they entered the UK, even if they were brought in against their will.

The UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has found the bill to have “widespread human rights failings” including to be in breach of the UK’s obligations under the Council of Europe Convention Against Trafficking and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The bill also continues the UK’s recategorization of trafficking and modern slavery as an immigration, rather than criminal matter. Yet rather than address immigration structures which create risks of exploitation for migrant victims, the UK is criminalising them, and in doing so facilitating further exploitation.

The Slavery sections of the ‘Illegal Migration’ Bill will be debated during the Bill’s Committee stage in the House of Lords on Monday 12 June. This follows Peers debating the previous section on unaccompanied children until after 4am on Thursday last week to ensure discussion regarding the Bill’s far reaching measures despite there being only 5 days timetabled for this stage of parliamentary scrutiny.

Legislating despite the evidence

This bill follows last year’s draconian Nationality and Borders Act which passed in the context of government rhetoric which demonised victims, repeatedly suggesting, against the evidence and despite rebuke by UN experts and the statistics regulator, that people were falsely claiming to be victims to ‘game’ the UK’s so called generous system. The reality couldn’t be more different. The UK’s slavery identification and support system has never centred on victim’s recovery needs and for the majority of confirmed victims, being officially recognised does not lead to even a short grant of leave to remain. In fact, many victims of trafficking are not entering the NRM as they cannot see how it works in their interest. This has been amplified by the Nationality and Borders Act with January to March 2023 seeing the highest number of ‘Duty to Notifies’, or identified adults who do not grant consent, since DtN began to be recorded in 2015.

During the same period, the Modern Slavery: National Referral Mechanism and Duty to Notify Statistics UK, Quarter 1, 2023 show a drastic reduction in the number of positive Reasonable Grounds decisions being issued; down from 85% of Reasonable Grounds decisions in quarter 4 of 2022 to just 58% in quarter 1 of 2023. This follows the raising of the threshold for Reasonable Grounds decisions on 30 January, which now requires ‘objective evidence’, which cannot be the victim’s testimony alone. There is no government funded specialist support or legal advice for victims ahead of this decision. Without this, it is unclear how anyone who may have only recently escaped a situation of trafficking or slavery would know what the Home Office considered  ‘objective evidence’ to be. It is not realistic to achieve this level of evidence before a potential victim has received initial support or legal advice, or started to reflect on and process what has happened to them, let alone disclose it to others.

If someone does receive a positive first stage decision the average (median) time taken from referral to conclusive grounds decisions made in quarter 4 2022 across the competent authorities was 642 days. This limbo, during which time many survivors do not have the right to work or begin to rebuild lives, compounds the trauma of trafficking and risks creating additional risks of exploitation due to the need to work for survival means.

This narrowing of the UK’s already too limited anti-slavery identification and support systems represents a regression which accommodates only a ‘perfect victim’; someone with no immigration issues, who trusts the authorities immediately and who has documentation setting out their trauma which they are able to disclose despite their precarious situation. The reality is that, where such a victim exists their story may be considered to be so perfect that this in itself can lead to suspicion and undermine their credibility. The truth is that the system is stacked against victims and will be even more so under this new bill.

Facilitating exploitation

We are already seeing the chilling effect that the threat of disqualification from protection and support has on the likelihood that victims will come forward and seek assistance with the entry into force of the Nationality and Borders Act’s public order disqualification provisions. The threats that traffickers so often make about “illegality” and detention and removal will in fact become enshrined in law. Frontline organisations have said that service users who receive a letter that the Home Office is ‘minded to apply’ the public order disqualification, have become afraid and go underground, too fearful to remain in contact with their support provider, losing access to support that is their legal entitlement. Frontline organisations have also shared details about the devastating impact that knowledge about the Illegal Migration Bill’s contents is already having on the mental health of victims and survivors. People talk of feelings of not being wanted, not believed, and their fear that due to the Bill’s provisions possibly being backdated, the support they are currently receiving could be ripped away from them.

The UK needs to reverse this course. The Illegal Migration Bill is unworkable and inhumane. It undermines fundamental values and denies a shared humanity. It is bad law. While the Bill will be contested until it is reversed, the damage it does will run deep.  We need to stop this legislation which will drive people underground- creating the conditions for exploitation. This Bill is already removing hope and that is a gift to exploiters.