Home Office cuts support for trafficking victims during pandemic

Exclusive: Modern slavery survivors left unable to feed themselves and at risk of being re-exploited as they face ‘cliff edge’ in support despite lockdown, lawyers warn

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 15 June 2020 10:35 BST
Lawyers and charities say thousands of vulnerable people are facing a 'cliff edge' in support during a time when they require additional assistance
Lawyers and charities say thousands of vulnerable people are facing a 'cliff edge' in support during a time when they require additional assistance (Getty)

Modern slavery victims are being left unable to feed themselves and are at risk of being re-exploited because the Home Office is cutting their financial and welfare support during the coronavirus crisis, The Independent has learnt.

Lawyers and charities say thousands of vulnerable people are facing a “cliff edge” in support only months after being identified as victims, leaving many to navigate their emotional recovery while struggling to afford basic essentials and maintain contact with support networks.

In one case, an Ethiopian woman who was identified as a trafficking victim earlier this year had her support stopped during lockdown, meaning she has been unable to afford essentials and could not self-isolate when she had suspected Covid-19 symptoms.

In the UK, suspected victims of modern slavery are referred to the government’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which assesses whether they are genuine victims. Once it is decided that there is reasonable grounds to believe they were enslaved, they are provided with £65 per week for financial subsistence, and sometimes accommodation in a safe house, while they wait for a final decision to be made.

If a positive decision is made, they can continue being supported for 45 days, at which point a needs assessment is carried out by the Home Office to decide whether they need to continue receiving the support for an extended period. If the individual is deemed not to require further support, their financial assistance is stopped and, if they are in accommodation, they are required to leave.

The Home Office announced on 6 April that in response to the pandemic, victims being accommodated in safe houses who would ordinarily be required to move on from the accommodation because a decision had been made would be able to remain there for the next three months.

However, there was no announcement that support would be extended for those in outreach support, who account for approximately 80 per cent of all potential victims – amounting to about 2,700 people – meaning this cohort has continued to have their support cut off during the lockdown.

Tomas Weber, a legal caseworker at the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) charity, has represented four victims who had their support stopped during the lockdown – two of whom have had their support reinstated temporarily after the charity’s intervention; he told The Independent that the experience had been “devastating” for them.

“Clients with dietary requirements have been unable to afford the food they need to be healthy. Most of their support networks have now moved online, which is expensive for them because they have to top up their internet. This is a time when they feel more isolated and anxious than usual and need their support networks even more,” he said.

“They’re essentially facing a choice between taking steps to improve their mental health and having food. If someone is used to spending £65 a week and their income is cut by 40 per cent at a time when they need to actually spend more than usual, there’s a real risk of re-exploitation.

“They’re completely invisible. They’ve been completely forgotten. Their needs have just gone unnoticed.”

One of his clients, an Ethiopian woman referred to ATLEU by the Helen Bamber Foundation, was recognised as a modern slavery victim at the start of this year, and shortly after – during the lockdown – her support was cut off.

She is also an asylum seeker, so is receiving £35.39 per week in asylum support, but the charity said this has not been enough to meet her basic needs. When she had a bad cough at the end of April and felt she should have self-isolated, she did not have enough money to buy in sufficient food to be able to isolate herself.

The woman has tried over the last few years to learn English but was recently told by her college that if she was not able to purchase sufficient data to take her upcoming exam, conducted remotely, she would not be able to finish the course and will have to start again at a later date.

Rachel Smith, project and communications coordinator at the Human Trafficking Foundation, said charities subcontracted to support victims under the Home Office’s NRM contract had been informing her that survivors were having their support removed during lockdown when they were “not ready”.

“We know of some support workers, working for subcontractors, who are supporting people even when they’ve officially been exited just because they’re concerned about their wellbeing. They aren’t being paid for this,” she said.

“Victims are often dependent on other services such as food banks, and because many of these have closed or reduced their services in the pandemic, many have no means of accessing basic essentials.

“Often people are in precarious living situations. If they lose their support, they might have to leave, leaving them with nowhere to go.”

Ahmed Aydeed, a director of public law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, has three clients whose support was cut off shortly after they were identified as trafficking victims during the pandemic. He said the “cliff edge” cut-off in support showed that the Home Office was failing to consider their needs – and, in turn, placing them at risk of re-exploitation.

“Imagine you’re suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] because of your experience of trafficking, and now you’re locked in on your own with little money. No sound-minded home secretary would take away specialist support from survivors during this pandemic,” he said.

Mr Aydeed, who has succeeded in challenging two cases, resulting in an extension of support, added that he was concerned many individuals would be unable to access legal representation to challenge terminations of their support during this time.

“Most high-street law firms are closed. It’s difficult enough to find legal-aid representation at the best of times, but now access is even more limited. To take support away during this period is a complete misunderstanding of victims’ needs,” he said.

Dame Sara Thornton, the UK's independent anti-slavery commissioner, told The Independent she was aware of concerns that some victims had not been able to receive the support and protection they deserved during the pandemic, particularly those in outreach support.

"I have received reassurance from the victim care contract that there are mechanisms in place to ensure that those who are vulnerable can continue to receive support at this time, but I will continue to monitor this issue closely," she added.

A spokesperson for The Salvation Army said that where a victim loses their support and their support worker believes it should be extended, an application could be made for them to receive support for longer.

They added: “Those people who are eligible can apply for asylum support and, in some parts of the country, there are services beyond the NRM including The Salvation Army’s Connect programme, which offers practical and holistic help along this journey through a weekly drop-in, a mentoring scheme and social activities to help survivors integrate into their local community and benefit from the support available where they live.

“We will actively follow up reported concerns about support for someone in our service when we are given their identity and consent from the individual concerned that they are happy for an enquiry to be made on their behalf.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Support through the Victim Care Contract (VCC) for victims of modern slavery will only come to an end where there is no longer an identified recovery need for the service, or where the victim is able to safely transition into other appropriate support services such as local authority care.”

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