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Government rhetoric has “a chilling effect” on survivors of modern slavery, say UN experts as UK anti-slavery organisations urge the Government to end dangerous hostility

December 19, 2022

Today, UN experts expressed alarm at the UK Government’s use of unevidenced claims and sensationalist language towards survivors of trafficking and modern slavery, stating these attacks on the credibility of survivors and their legal representatives have a “chilling effect.” Following this release, twenty one anti-slavery organisations have released a statement calling on the Government to end its roll-back of rights and protection for survivors, and recommit to support, assistance and safeguarding for all victims of this grave crime. 

Only seven years after introducing the Modern Slavery Act, the UK Government has been steadily undermining the modern slavery system, removing support and protections for victims and survivors, and using increasingly hostile and inflammatory language to attack their credibility. Last week, the Government announced plans to increase evidence thresholds, making it harder for victims to be identified and leaving those unable to meet this without protection and support. Today, sadly, the cruel Rwanda policy — which causes significant harm to victims of trafficking — has been upheld in court.

We have seen repeated unevidenced claims by Government officials about alleged ‘misuse’ of the modern slavery identification and protection systems. These allegations bear no relation to our own experiences working with victims and survivors, or to the Government’s own findings. The Government has failed to provide evidence for these claims, despite repeated requests — including at a recent Home Affairs Select Committee session — prompting the Office for Statistics Regulation to publicly reprimand the Home Office recently. This followed the UN refugee body stepping forward to condemn legal errors in a report that the Home Secretary herself supported.

The inflammatory language used in recent months by some Ministers, MPs and even in an official Home Office press release, is alarming. We know the damage this is causing to victims, and urge the Government to put an end to this dangerous, hostile narrative, and prioritise effective support for victims and survivors of trafficking and modern slavery.

UN experts stated: “We are alarmed by the rise in unsubstantiated claims by public officials and Government departments regarding persons seeking protection under the Modern Slavery Act and the National Referral Mechanism in the past days and weeks…Misleading statements that exaggerate the level of fraud and abuse in the system to protect victims of trafficking and slavery, suggest that survivors of these practices are migrants in an irregular situation or criminals rather than vulnerable victims of gross human rights violations…and that their legal representatives are cynical opportunists rather than human rights defenders…This has a chilling effect on those willing to come forward as victims and those willing to provide legal representation to victims, impeding efforts to identify and protect victims and persons at risk of trafficking and hold perpetrators accountable…Focus instead on strengthening measures to protect these vulnerable populations.”

A member of Survivor Collective: “It doesn’t come as a surprise to us that people are now being attacked when this language that was once attributed to politically far right groups is now being normalised and spoken by our MPs and people in positions of power and support. The Government is attacking migrant survivors, driving racial tension, while ignoring the growing number of British survivors. All survivors, whether British or migrant, should be listened to and given the support they need.” 

Peter Wieltschnig, Policy & Networks Officer, Focus on Labour Exploitation: “The UK Government is failing victims and survivors of trafficking and modern slavery. Rather than taking much needed steps to enable victims to access identification, protection and support systems, the Government has decided to demonise victims and narrow access to vital support and protections. We call on the Government to focus on preventing modern slavery through an evidence-based and person-centred approach which keeps people safe through giving them access to rights and options.”

Read the full statement here.