The UK Prime Minister’s Asylum Statement published last week has serious implications for the identification of survivors of trafficking and modern slavery and their access to support and recovery services. The announcement was that:
‘We will significantly raise the threshold someone has to meet to be considered a modern slave. For the first time, we will actually require a case worker to have objective evidence of modern slavery rather than just a suspicion.’
Referrals into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s identification and support system for victims of trafficking or slavery, can only be made by a First Responder, a statutory or voluntary sector organisation designated by government. People do not make modern slavery ‘claims’, a First Responder identifies an individual as a ‘potential victim’ and makes the initial referral into the NRM. This is then followed by two decisions: a Reasonable Grounds, or first stage decision, for which the present threshold is ‘suspect but cannot prove'; the second, or Conclusive Grounds decision, is made on the threshold of ‘balance of probabilities’. The decision maker is one of two ‘Competent Authorities’ in the Home Office, meaning that it is the Home Office that remains in control of the system.
Dangers of increasing the evidence threshold
Survivors of modern slavery, together with First Responders and professionals with experience of identifying and referring potential victims, have been clear that it is vital that the evidence threshold is not too high, particularly at the initial stages, as disclosure and gathering evidence of trafficking or modern slavery is challenging and takes time.
Many victims of modern slavery will have had no specialist support prior to being referred into the NRM. If the evidence threshold is too high, victims will be shut out from vital identification and support. It is unrealistic to expect people to unpack deep trauma which they have buried as a survival mechanism when they have not had their most basic needs met in order to meet the threshold. Without support, they may end up back with their exploiter to avoid destitution.
As evidenced by Helen Bamber Foundation, among others, trauma affects memory, recollection and the ability to provide testimony. Many people will not disclose in a way which appears coherent. In fact ‘appearing to be coached’ has been recognised as an indicator of trafficking. This is why the initial threshold must be ’suspect but cannot prove’.
It is not yet clear what ‘evidence’ will be required or accepted. By its very nature, there will often be no documented evidence of exploitation or slavery. Without specific statutory funding for First Responders or pre-NRM support, it is unclear how ‘evidence' would be collected in practice in advance of an initial NRM referral or who would be responsible for this. The proposed requirement for 'evidence' prior to a referral raises many concerns, such as where the victim would live without support during this time; who would pay for translation or other professional fees including legal aid; whether people would put themselves at risk to collect ‘evidence’ while in slavery or remain in exploitation in order to do so. At the same time, Multi Agency Assurance Panels (MAAPs) have been removed from the guidance, leaving no oversight of negative NRM decisions (a potential disaster in conjunction with the increased threshold). While the threshold for inital identification is set to increase, the ‘reflection and recovery period’ (the time between the first and second stage decision) has been reduced from 45 to 30 days, giving potential victims less time to disclose or gather evidence during the time when they are actually in the NRM and in receipt of support, during the period between the Reasonable Grounds and Conclusive Grounds decision.
No evidence has been presented to justify any need to increase the threshold for identification. NRM referrals have increased, but this is surely an indication that the system is working as expected; there has been a significant amount of awareness raising around slavery and the NRM since it was established in 2009. Back in 2014, the Home Office estimated potential victims to number 10-13,000 in the UK. In July 2020 the Centre for Social Justice calculated that the true number of people in modern slavery in the UK might be in excess of 100,000. The number of referrals we are seeing should not be a surprise.
Impact of the changes
These changes will discourage victims from coming forward for fear of not having enough ‘evidence’. While the lack of a positive decision only means that a threshold is not reached in practice, it can affect credibility and be wrongly interpreted so that the person is perceived to have claimed something falsely, a perception which has been massively encouraged by recent unsubstantiated and harmful Government rhetoric around victims ‘gaming the system’.
Just this week, three UN Special Rapporteurs published a press release arguing that the Government’s '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.'' In response, FLEX and 20 other anti-trafficking organisations released a statement calling on the Government to end its dangerous hostility and roll-back of rights and protections for survivors.
What needs to be done
What is in fact clear is that more must be done to ensure the NRM is person-centred, that it works to further the interests and the recovery of the people it is designed to help, and that it better supports victims to come forward and agree to enter the NRM. The number of duty to notify forms (where a statutory First Responder has identified an adult as a potential victim of slavery but they have not consented to a referral) saw an increase of 47% between 2021 and 2022. Increasing numbers of potential victims do not agree to enter the NRM as they do not see the system as working in their interest, likely due to the long delays in decision-making and the fact that many people will not have permission to work during this time, or any choice about where in the UK they are supported. Instead, the Home Office should be focussing on increasing the number of First Responders in order to be able to identify victims, in particular those who use a trauma-informed approach to facilitate disclosure and improve decision-making, including addressing the long wait times for decisions.
The Prime Minister has described the modern slavery system as ‘struggling’. If this the case, it is a failure by government. The numbers entering and supported by the system are to be expected. They are too high because every identification of someone as a victim represents a failure in the provision of options and support which would have prevented their exploitation. Rather than increasing the identification threshold with the effect of stopping victims from being identified and driving people underground, the Government needs to ensure that those who are exploited are able to access protection and support via a system which is informed by lived experience and evidence of what works, and to focus on preventing modern slavery from happening in the first place.