In a highly critical response of the Home Office’s new plan for immigration, Dame Sara Thornton expressed concern that the proposals would make the identification of victims of modern slavery harder and create “additional vulnerabilities” for this cohort.
The plans, 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.
They also include 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”.
But 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 seeking to abuse the immigration system could have a “considerable impact” on victims of modern slavery.
“There is grave danger of viewing victims of modern slavery through an immigration lens and ignoring the trauma and exploitation they have suffered as victims,” she said.
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 exponentially, from 2,337 referrals in 2014 to 10,613 in 2020. Two thirds of all referrals are foreign nationals.
Dame Sara said 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”, adding 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”.
On 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 risked “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, saying that Home Office plans to consult on lowering the threshold for assessing whether an individuals is a potential trafficking victim as “on balance appropriate”, citing poor quality decision-making in some instances.
Maya Esselmont, director of After Exploitation, 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,” she added.
“We must be working to identify more survivors, not undermining 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 featured 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”.
“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,” she added.
“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.”