Hundreds of trafficking survivors have had their financial support slashed unlawfully during the coronavirus pandemic, lawyers warn.
People recognised as potential victims of modern slavery who have been placed in hotels and other interim accommodation during lockdown stopped receiving their weekly government allowance – which is designed to aid their recovery – without warning last month.
The Home Office is facing a legal challenge over its decision to cut their financial support, with lawyers stating that there is no legal basis for such practice as it places vulnerable people at risk of re-trafficking.
In one case seen by The Independent, a Kenyan woman – believed to have been trafficked to the UK and held in a brothel where she was forced to have sex daily – has been unable to access essential toiletries including sanitary pads and toothpaste, nor top-up for her phone in order to contact her support worker and legal representatives.
A number of victims, including this woman, have recently had their support reinstated after their lawyers challenged the individual cases in court. The department is now facing a legal challenge to restore support for hundreds of other trafficking survivors who have been affected.
Individuals whom the government decides there are “reasonable grounds” to believe have been subjected to modern slavery enter a framework called the National referral Mechanism (NRM), under which they receive weekly subsistence of either £35 or £65 per week. Those who are also seeking asylum often live in asylum accommodation, but they continue to receive the same rates of financial support.
During the coronavirus lockdown, a number of these individuals were placed in hotels along with other asylum seekers, due to a shortage of accommodation. While there was initially no change to their support rates, in early July it was reduced to nothing, with no warning given to them or their lawyers.
The Home Office said slavery victims who were also asylum seekers and accommodated in full-board facilities did not receive a cash allowance because they had all utilities, meals and essentials provided.
The UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner Dame Sara Thornton wrote to safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins on Friday demanding clarity on the change to subsistence rates, and warning that it would “only further exacerbate the vulnerability of victims of modern slavery”.
She stated in the letter that multiple organisations had contacted her office expressing “significant concerns” regarding the change, with some having to provide supermarket vouchers to survivors to enable them to meet their essential needs. She cited one case where a trafficking survivor had resorted to begging following their loss of financial support.
“Whilst providing full-board emergency accommodation may meet a person’s essential living needs, it does not recognise their status as a potential victim of modern slavery,” Dame Sarah said in the letter.
“I am aware that there is an expectation that any further essential needs, such as travel costs and toiletries are expected to be met by asylum support, but I am concerned as to whether this is happening routinely in practice.
“This is not only detrimental to their recovery, but also puts them at risk of further exploitation.”
In one case, a woman who was recognised as a potential victim after she was trafficked from Kenya and forced into sexual exploitation in the UK had her financial support cut off in July without notice or explanation. This left her without access to essential toiletries including sanitary pads and toothpaste and unable to top up her phone, use public transport or access the internet.
The woman, who has been diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder, was therefore unable to call her support worker, lawyer or friends who supported her, and could not attend medical or counselling appointments. The hotel at which she was accommodated didn’t provide toiletries other than tissues, there was no telephone access for external calls, and the hotel wifi cost £7 per day, according to her lawyer.
Heather Malunga, immigration lawyer at the Immigration Advice Service, who represents the woman, said: “This financial support is intended to protect victims of trafficking and promote their recovery. The Home Office’s actions leave this very vulnerable group at risk of harm and even re-exploitation.
“The government’s position is that they get toiletries in hotels, but most are not receiving basic essentials, so they have to buy their own. Clothing isn’t provided, neither are stamps or phone credit. They’re meant to be able to contact their support worker or counsellor when they’re feeling distressed, but they can’t because that money is no longer there.”
The Home Office has been issued a pre-action letter from lawyers at Duncan Lewis Solicitors requesting that it reinstate financial support to all potential victims in hotel accommodation, after the law firm successfully challenged cuts to support for five individuals, whose support was subsequently reinstated.
Ahmed Aydeed, director of public law at the firm, said: “Instead of increasing basic support for victims of trafficking during this pandemic, the home secretary has unlawfully cut the basic subsistence payments made to them. Survivors of trafficking are entitled to this support and desperately need it to enable them to recover and escape from their traffickers.”
He said the charities contracted by the Home Office to provide NRM support seemed to have been “forced into silence”, and that it had therefore been left to “courageous” survivors to challenge the cuts to ensure others weren’t left at an enhanced risk of being re-trafficked.
Zoe Dexter, welfare and housing manager at the Helen Bamber Foundation, which supports at least seven clients who have lost their NRM support, said the charity was “extremely concerned” by the cuts.
“We have seen people’s mental health deteriorate as a result of being in hotels with no choice about what they eat, where they go, if they have enough money on their phone to call a friend or their GP or therapist or access to the internet,” she said.
Rachel Smith, project and communications coordinator at the Human Trafficking Foundation, said there was a ”huge lack of transparency”, adding: “It’s very worrying that these decisions are being made with no explanation. There’s been no admission that there has been a change.
“It simulates a situation of trafficking – when they have been receiving payments and a trafficker decides they don’t want to pay them anymore. It is re-traumatising and it could put people at risk of re-trafficking.”
A Home Office spokesperson said the department did not comment on individual cases involved in ongoing legal proceedings, but added: “Modern slavery is an abhorrent crime and we are proud to provide world-leading support for victims to help them to rebuild their lives.”