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The UK’s anti-trafficking reputation on borrowed time – an analysis of the 2023 US Trafficking In Persons Report

June 22, 2023
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Peter Wieltschnig

Policy and Networks Officer

On 16 June, the US State Department published the 2023 edition of their influential Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report which provides an “overview of the state of human trafficking around the world”.

On the face of it, the UK has retained its Tier 1 status, meaning that it is deemed as fully complying with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards. However, on a closer reading of the report, it becomes clear that the US is all too aware that the UK system offers insufficient and patchy protections and support for victims. The report paints a picture of policy changes going in the wrong direction, and the absence of meaningful accountability.

All of this suggests the UK has been undermining its own previous work to identify and support victims of trafficking and is now on borrowed time in regard to its international reputation around the prevention of and addressing human trafficking. A flurry of disastrous policies in the UK will result in increasing psychological and physical harm to victims of trafficking. The UK will soon fail to meet the recommendations put forward by the US State Department. But as the recommendations show, it doesn’t have to be this way.

What does the report say?

Need to improve long-term support for victims

The issues identified remain similar to the findings contained in last year’s report. While the TIP report is encouraging the UK to prioritise preventing and addressing trafficking, there is no real willingness to make the changes needed.

In contrast to the UK’s claims that the current system is ‘gold plated’, the TIP report exposes it as falling short. Moreover, it finds that the UK’s current approach has gaps in protections for both foreign national and British victims.

In a long-list of recommendations, the report outlines the need to expand long-term care and reintegration support; to increase the number of First Responder organisations able to refer people into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), to ensure potential foreign victims who are referred into the NRM can work, to provide access to timely legal aid; and increase victim identification training for and the number of first responder organisations to make referrals to the NRM among other such recommendations.

Ultimately, to reduce the risks of re-trafficking and provide a meaningful route to recovery, making sure the UK’s anti-trafficking systems work in survivors’ interests, such recommendations must be heeded and implemented.

What about the ‘Illegal Migration’ Bill?

Last year, FLEX pointed to an announced Modern Slavery Bill as one way to enshrine the recommendations outlined in the 2022 TIP report. However, with the implementation of the Nationality & Borders Act and Government’s attempts to rush the disastrous ‘Illegal Migration’ Bill through Parliament with extremely limited scrutiny, many of the recommendations in the 2023 TIP Report will be impossible to implement.

The US TIP report calls on the UK Government to ensure that “victims are not inappropriately penalized solely for unlawful acts, including immigration violations, committed as a direct result of being trafficked”; to “provide a clear route to residency for foreign victims” and to “ensure potential foreign victims who are referred into the NRM can work.”

The TIP report relays concerns that “many victims who lacked secure immigration status may not be identified or protected and would subsequently fear coming forward to seek support”. This is an issue that ourselves and others have continued to raise to the Government and will be much worsened by the implementation of the ‘Illegal Migration’ Bill.

The potential consequences of the ‘Illegal Migration’ Bill cannot be overstated. Should the Bill come into force, we will see victims and survivors of trafficking unable to access even basic support in practice from the UK’s anti-trafficking framework designed to provide protection and support to victims of trafficking (the NRM) and barred from the UK’s asylum system, in violation of our international obligations. Moreover, the UK Government’s proffered policies will mean that many survivors of exploitation will be detained in unsuitable and inhumane conditions and potentially removed from the UK, including though the  much-criticised plan to remove people to Rwanda.

This will ultimately play into the hands of traffickers, who will use the threats of immigration detention and removal as a way to trap those already in exploitation or cause further exploitation.

In contrast, the TIP report highlights the need to not only improve entry into the NRM, but to improve the protections and support provided through it; centering them on the practical needs of survivors such as right to work. We welcome the recommendations of a more person-centered approach to trafficking identification, calibrated to people’s needs and contexts.

Creating Vulnerabilities

Importantly, the report looks at the way in which Government policies have actively created vulnerabilities to trafficking – producing conditions which make people more susceptible to exploitation, such as debt bondage, and embolden unscrupulous employers to exploit migrant workers.

Building on the US’s recommendation at the UK’s recent Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council that the UK takes steps to ensure that “steps to ensure migrant workers are not left vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from employers and the UK visa system”, the TIP report highlights the risks of restricted visas for migrant workers.

The report pays particular attention to Overseas Domestic Workers, Seasonal Workers and workers on the government’s transit visa scheme for workers in the fishing industry being at risk of exploitation. As FLEX and others previously highlighted, the Government must actively address the structural risks contained within these visa routes to prevent the risks of abuse and exploitation.

Dodging accountability

A consistent theme within the report is the absence of meaningful scrutiny, accountability or strategy. For example, it highlights the UK Government has failed to appoint a new Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner for over a year, failed to publish its annual report on modern slavery in 2022 and failed to update its 2014 Modern Slavery Strategy as planned. Further, it relays concerns over the failure to meaningfully engage with civil society before implementing changes, such as the creation of the Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority. The UK Government is putting forward policies without supporting evidence, and failing to heed the concerns voiced by civil society, including survivors of trafficking.

What next?

Somewhat pithily, the TIP report declares that “the [UK] government decreased protection efforts”. It may be possible to go further and say that through the continued policy trajectory, the Government is about to axe a huge swathe of anti-trafficking protections, against the counsel of its closest allies.

We strongly urge the UK to adopt the US TIP Report recommendations in full so as to regain its international standing in combating trafficking, and more importantly, provide essential protections and support to victims and survivors.