Figures obtained through a freedom of information (FoI) request last week revealed 507 people who had been enslaved or trafficked were detained under immigration powers in 2018, despite Home Office guidance that this group should not be placed in detention.
It has now emerged that these figures, obtained by data-mapping project After Exploitation, have previously been requested from the department on numerous occasions by MPs – but that ministers have repeatedly claimed the government did not hold the data.
An open letter signed by more than 20 charities, including Amnesty International and the Refugee Council, condemns the “conflict of interest” between the department’s immigration enforcement and its duty to protect trafficking victims – and warns that the scale of the problem has gone largely unchallenged due to a “lack of data transparency”.
The independent MP Frank Field submitted a parliamentary question to the Home Office last month requesting this data, and was told by immigration minister Caroline Nokes that there was “no central record” of this and that the department “did not collate or publish the data requested”.
The letter, whose signatories also include Anti-Slavery International and Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), states: “We are deeply concerned by the government’s response to a new report outlining the detention of 507 potential victims of human trafficking in 2018 alone.
“Until now, the exact scale of this problem has gone largely unchallenged due to a lack of data transparency ... We ask the government not to wait until public scrutiny to make data on the support, deportation and detention outcomes of trafficking and potential trafficking victims available.”
Mr Field accused the government of “hiding” the information, telling The Independent: “Freed slaves are being re-enslaved by the government locking them up in detention centres and, instead of throwing away the keys, throws away the data on who is locked up by the state.
“The government’s line that it holds no information on the numbers of free slaves it locks up has now been shown to be untrue. What else are they hiding?”
The Independent has reported on a number of cases where people formally identified by the Home Office as modern slavery victims, or displaying clear signs that they are victims, have been detained or threatened with deportation.
In one case, a Chinese woman who showed multiple indicators of trafficking after being found in a brothel was detained in Yarl’s Wood for six months. A day before her case was to be heard at the High Court, the Home Office admitted her detention was unlawful and that she was entitled to compensatory damages for the entire period of detention.
In another case, a Vietnamese man called Duc Kien Nguyen, who was brought to Britain and forced to work on a cannabis farm by a drugs gang, was threatened with deportation despite being formally identified as a victim of trafficking. Hours after The Independent reported on Mr Nguyen’s case, the Home Office accepted an application for a judicial review of his asylum claim, and his removal was halted.
Separately, a report published by Women for Refugee Women last week revealed hundreds of Chinese women who were trafficked to the UK were detained in removal centres last year.
Sulaiha Ali, a solicitor at Duncan Lewis Public Law, said she and her colleagues “continuously” encountered cases where there were “overwhelming” indicators of trafficking, but that these were often overlooked or not communicated to officials.
“The lack of transparency surrounding the detention of potential victims of trafficking is deeply concerning. The numbers now revealed reflect our concerns that the Home Office is continuing to detain vulnerable individuals in breach of its own policy,” she said.
“This illustrates the serious failings by the Home Office to promptly identify victims of trafficking and the callous way in which they detain.”
Pierre Makhlouf, assistant director of BID, said the Home Office seemed to be “more concerned with avoiding adverse media attention then producing transparent and evidence-based policy”.
“There is an urgent need to ensure that the detention of trafficked people is prevented from its outset. These are vulnerable people and to subject them to detention is retraumatising, harmful and can cause unnecessary fear,” he added.
“The Home Office has consistently sought to avoid scrutiny of these figures in its responses to FoI requests and parliamentary questions. Since the government believes that modern slavery is ‘the greatest human rights issue of our time’ it must take urgent steps to stop locking away its victims.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery and human trafficking are barbaric crimes and we remain committed to stamping it out and supporting genuine victims.
“There is a presumption against detention of adults identified as at risk and it would only happen when the evidence of their vulnerability is outweighed by immigration control factors.
“All Home Office staff working in the detention system are given training to ensure potential victims of trafficking and slavery can be identified at any time during the immigration process and have their cases considered under the National Referral Mechanism.”