FLEX on Brexit: settlement scheme plans threaten rights of victims of slavery and trafficking

Blog15 Nov 2018

EU citizens currently living in the UK, or who arrive before 31 December 2020, will have the right to stay here after Brexit under the EU Settlement Scheme. To qualify for the scheme, individuals must prove their identity, their nationality, that they have been living in the UK and will also be checked for whether they have any serious criminal convictions. A number of aspects of the Scheme are not yet fit for purpose for trafficked persons.

Key concerns

The government intends to process registrations under this scheme online, with support provided for those with low computer literacy. They have stated that they will accept a wide range of documents to prove residency and that the ‘default’ position will be in favour of the applicant.

However, victims of modern slavery and human trafficking will experience a number of significant barriers to achieving registration. These include:

  • Low levels of English language knowledge or general literacy
  • Lack of identity documentation or proof of residence due to having been trafficked
  • Failure to meet deadlines for registration due to currently being in, or having just exited, a trafficking situation
  • Inability to pay the registration fee of £65
  • Dependency on abusive employers for documentation required by the scheme
  • Failure to have registration approved due to crimes committed whilst under duress
  • Failure to confirm that legal aid will be available for EU trafficked persons to go through the settlement scheme and details of lawyers able to provide this specialised immigration advice

The government has stated that tackling modern slavery and supporting those victimised are key priorities. Failing to ensure victims can fairly and safely register to remain in the UK after Brexit contradicts this position. It may also lead to re-trafficking of victims who are unable to pay the fee or otherwise successfully complete registration, or who are wrongfully deported due to crimes committed under duress.

FLEX calls on the government to:

  • Abolish fees for victims of slavery: remove all charges for victims of slavery and trafficking for settlement scheme registration
  • Respect the statutory defence for crimes committed whilst under duress: EU victims of slavery who committed crimes whilst under duress should not be refused registration due to those crimes. The Modern Slavery Act, Part 5, provides a statutory defence for those who commit an offence whilst in a trafficking situation; this should be respected in Brexit plans
  • Adopt a protocol for victims without papers: government must ensure that victims without adequate proof of residence or identification can register under the scheme and that this is workable for victims who have chosen not to enter the National Referral Mechanism
  • Adopt a protocol for victims who miss the deadline: government must ensure there is a fair process for EU victims currently in a trafficking situation who may miss the deadline for registration due to these circumstances
  • Provide independent monitoring for victims outside the national support scheme for trafficked persons: for registering victims of slavery who have not entered the national scheme for such victims, the National Referral Mechanism, caseworkers will be able to provide evidence of their status as a trafficked person. This must have an independent monitoring mechanism to ensure the process is consistent and fair

Commenting on the settlement scheme, FLEX Director, Caroline Robinson, says:

“Victims of human trafficking and modern slavery have the same rights as all other EU citizens currently living in the UK and wishing to remain here after Brexit. However, they will also experience specific and substantial barriers to achieving those rights if government fails to acknowledge their position and act accordingly.

It is unconscionable that people who have already experienced trauma and distress within the UK should be subjected to unfair processes, such as being required to pay fees to remain in the UK after being exploited here, or facing potential deportation due to being forced to commit crimes by exploiters.

The government has so far stated that it will have a grant fund available to provide extra support for vulnerable groups, with those grants being distributed to civil society organisations. Whilst we welcome this, it is far below the joined up approach needed to ensure victims of trafficking and slavery can register. Given the government’s clear and globally voiced commitment to tackling slavery and protecting victims, failure to ensure the rights of this group of people under the settlement scheme would be a national embarrassment.”

FLEX has recently spoken out about these issues in the national media, including in the The Guardian and The Independent.

If you would like to speak with FLEX for a media comment about this issue, please use the contact details found here.