The UK government’s “exclusive focus” on immigration control is “playing into traffickers’ hands”, according to lawyers and charities who warn that Home Office policies are discouraging victims of exploitation from coming forward to seek protection and justice.
A letter to the Prime Minister, signed by more than 60 charities and law firms, warns that too many modern slavery victims who seek help from the authorities are subject to “harmful” immigration control measures rather than support, and that traffickers use the threat of detention and removal to ensure compliance from those they abuse.
More than 1,250 potential trafficking victims were held in prison-like detention centres due to their immigration status last year, many of whom go on to become “confirmed” victims, states the letter, warning that the practice of detaining victims was preventing people who have suffered abuse from coming forward.
Immigration control has become a focus for Home Secretary Priti Patel in recent months, as she has repeatedly stated that she is intent on preventing “illegal” Channel crossings and vowed to make the small boat route from France to the UK “unviable”.
The Home Office provoked outrage when it emerged plans had been floated within government to deter migrants by housing them in camps on disused oil rigs, ferries, on islands off the coast of Scotland or far-flung locations like Ascension Island, Papua New Guinea or Morocco.
The letter, coordinated by data mapping project After Exploitation, warns that the UK’s emphasis on immigration control is “threatening efforts to identify and support survivors of trafficking at the expense of human dignity and safety”.
“Modern slavery is routinely referred to as a ‘hidden crime’ but, with no immigration protection in place for survivors, it is little wonder that victims of exploitation are so rarely counted,” it states.
The signatories demand that the government introduces a ban on detaining confirmed and potential victims of slavery, and provides at least 12 months’ support and immigration protection for survivors in order that they can receive support and pursue justice where it is right for them.
They also raise concern that Ms Patel’s recently announced plans to “overhaul” the asylum system, which include proposed policies to prejudge asylum claims on the basis of the time at which they are made, will “embolden” traffickers.
“Victims of trafficking often have no choice but to claim asylum months or years after first entering the country. This will impact many survivors, for whom the factors that made them vulnerable to traffickers in the first place will pose further threats upon removal,” the letter adds.
It comes after The Independent revealed that Priti Patel had been warned against the criminalisation of asylum seekers arriving in the UK by boat as it emerged people-smugglers were exploiting vulnerable migrants in northern France to facilitate Channel crossings.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) confirmed it had received intelligence of asylum seekers being forced to work for people-smugglers in northern France, and migrants told The Independent that traffickers had taken their money for the crossing, only to then demand they work for free in order to make the journey to the UK.
The letter to Boris Johnson, which coincides with Anti Slavery Day, challenges the narrative that tougher borders stop human trafficking, saying that on the contrary, trafficking is made profitable through a lack of safe and legal routes.
“The UK has played a crucial role in sounding the alarm on this heinous crime, at home and on a global stage, with the passage of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. However, without action, traffickers will continue to benefit from hostile immigration policies,” it concludes.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to tackling the abhorrent crimes of human trafficking and modern slavery. We give victims tailored support to help rebuild their lives through our ambitious National Referral Mechanism Transformation Programme.
“As we replace freedom of movement with the Points-Based System, we remain committed to protecting individuals from modern slavery and exploitation by criminal traffickers and unscrupulous employers.”