Fear of trafficking victims being ignored under new UK immigration plans

Priti Patel’s recent plans will lead to more modern slavery victims being ‘missed’ and more vulnerable people pushed into exploitation on British soil according to the Anti-Slavery Commissioner.  It is feared that the exploitation and trauma trafficking victims endure will be ‘ignored’ under the UK’s immigration plans.

Dame Sara Thornton, in a critical response of the Home Secretary’s new plan for immigration, expressed deep concern that the proposals would make the identification of victims of modern slavery harder and create ‘additional vulnerabilities’ for this group of individuals.

The plans, which were announced by home secretary Priti Patel in March, include seeking to ‘rapidly remove’ asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via unauthorised routes and granting them only temporary protection, with limited rights, if they cannot be deported.

Measures to prevent ‘abuse’ in the immigration system, including preventing non-UK nationals from bringing trafficking claims after they have made a separate protection claim, and introducing a ‘fast-track’ appeal process for cases ‘deemed to be manifestly unfounded’ or new claims made late.

The Home Office says the proposals constitute a ‘common sense’ approach to controlling immigration and will ensure that Britain is a ‘haven for those in need’.

The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner warned in her response to the consultation of the plans this week that measures taken to address a ‘potentially small’ number of people who seek to abuse the immigration system could have a ‘considerable impact’ on victims of modern slavery”.

“There is a grave danger of viewing victims of modern slavery through an immigration lens and ignoring the trauma and exploitation they have already suffered as victims”.

Over the past seven years the number of victims referred to the National Referral Mechanism – the UK’s framework for identifying victims of trafficking – has increased dramatically, from 2,337 referrals in 2014 to 10.613 in 2020.  Two thirds of all referrals are foreign nationals.

Dame Sara said that the focus on rapid removal risked ‘missing’ potential victims of trafficking, with ‘limited’ opportunities for identification and protection before enforcement action is taken. She said it risked ‘conflating unmeritorious claims with late claims’.  She went on to say that there are ‘numerous reasons why victims of modern slavery may not disclose their exploitation at an early stage, and this must be taken into account when considering fast track or expedited processes’.

Regarding Ms Patel’s plans to refuse asylum to anyone who arrives via unauthorised routes and instead deem them ‘inadmissible’. the Commissioner said the vulnerability of some of these individuals must be acknowledged, as among them ‘will be victims of trafficking’.

She also warned that the plan to grant those deemed inadmissible but who cannot be removed a temporary visa with limited rights risks ‘creating vulnerability’ as many may be ‘left with no option but to work informally, risking exploitation by unscrupulous employers’.

Dame Sara did not reject the proposals entirely but said that the Home Office plans to consult on lowering the threshold for assessing whether an individual is a potential trafficking victim as ‘on balance appropriate’, citing poor quality decision-making in some instances.

Director of After Exploitation, Maya Esselmont, welcomed the Commissioner’s criticism of parts of the Home Office plan but said the Bill must be rejected ‘in its entirety’.  “The spirit with which these proposals have been introduced, with a focus on restricting the already small number of survivors recognised by the UK government, is terrifying”.

“We must work to identify more survivors, not undermine a system which already struggles to gain the trust of exploited people”.

Tamara Barnett, of the Human Trafficking Foundation, said she was concerned that modern slavery features so prominently in the plan, despite previous recognition by the Home Office that the issue should be seen ‘through the lense of safeguarding not immigration.

She continued to say: “The implication that a victim of human trafficking may be firstly penalised for how they came to the country and, secondly, for not disclosing their exploitation immediately, flies in the face of all we know about modern slavery”.

“We believe the immigration system is rife with delays, poor decision making and dysfunction and needs a radical overhaul.  However this plan risks putting optics over the real cost implications, legal battles and heightened risk to some of the most vulnerable in our society that could ensue if the concerns raised aren’t addressed”.

A Home Office spokesperson said Dame Sara’s response to its consultation on the immigration plans made ‘several inaccurate claims’. but did not outline which claims and how.

They added: “The UK is a world leader in protecting victims of modern slavery and this will continue, with our proposals including improved support for victims and more training for first responders, but we will not tolerate those who attempt to divert resources away from genuine victims in order to cheat the system”.