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Home secretary accused of ‘scapegoating’ modern slavery victims as new laws planned

Suella Braverman wants to go beyond Priti Patel and change the law to stop alleged abuse of system by small boat migrants

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Saturday 15 October 2022 16:26 BST
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Suella Braverman is drawing up new laws in a bid to cut the number of migrants crossing the Channel
Suella Braverman is drawing up new laws in a bid to cut the number of migrants crossing the Channel (Getty)

The government has been accused of “scapegoating” modern slavery victims as it draws up new laws to restrict claims by asylum seekers.

The Independent understands that Suella Braverman wants to stop what she sees as the abuse of current powers by migrants crossing the English Channel, after accusing them of “gaming the system”.

New legislation which could change the operation of Theresa May's Modern Slavery Act is being discussed by the Home Office, Downing Street and government lawyers.

The plans go further than a package of immigration laws brought in by Priti Patel that criminalised Channel crossings, aiming to make sure that the Rwanda deal and other moves to reject asylum seekers can be implemented.

In an exclusive article for The Independent, the head of Anti-Slavery International accused the new home secretary of spreading “dangerous narratives that scapegoat victims and question their integrity”.

Jasmine O’Connor OBE added: “The government needs to honestly listen to survivors, and safeguard them against future abuse, not use them as a pawn in a game of hostile rhetoric and a divide and rule strategy.

“This bill must extend – rather than roll back – support and protections for all victims.”

In her Conservative Party conference speech, Ms Braverman said that some Albanian migrants crossing the English Channel were claiming protection but “their claims of being trafficked are lies”.

She added: “The hard truth is that our modern slavery laws are being abused by people gaming the system. We’ve seen a 450 per cent increase in modern slavery claims since 2014.”

Ms Braverman said convicted paedophiles and rapists had also tried to “game the system” by using claims of modern slavery to block deportations, including a man who went on to commit a further rape.

Until recently, most modern slavery victims recognised by the UK's official system were British children exploited by criminal gangs but the new government has handed modern slavery to the minister responsible for illegal immigration and asylum.

The move is believed to be sparked by a rising number of cases involving Albanian adults using the National Referral Mechanism, the system used by the government to identify modern slavery victims. Albanians overtook British children as the largest single group earlier this year and have also become a dominant nationality in small boat crossings.

Between April and June, 91 per cent of adults and 92 per cent of children assessed by the National Referral Mechanism received “conclusive grounds decisions”, meaning they are granted specialist support as victims of slavery, trafficking, criminal exploitation or forced labour.

Suella Braverman says seeing a plane taking off to Rwanda is 'her dream'

The UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, said: “Designating modern slavery as an illegal migration issue is misleading as British nationals are also victimised.

“This also stigmatises foreign victims who have suffered gross violations of human rights. Protection of all victims must be a priority.”

The watchdog charged with overseeing modern slavery laws in the UK has not had a commissioner in place since April, and the former incumbent said she did not recognise Ms Braverman’s abuse claims.

Dame Sara Thornton, the former independent anti-slavery commissioner, said that the number of referrals had risen since 2014 because of work by the Home Office, police and authorities to spot victims.

“This is a hidden crime and we have got a lot better at identifying victims,” she told The Independent.

“There has been a lot of work done by police forces, local authorities, Border Force and Immigration Enforcement to know what the signs are.

“I don’t know where the evidence for claiming the rise is because of abuse has come from.”

The government’s public appointments website says the competition for a new independent anti-slavery commissioner has closed, but there has been no announcement since final interviews took place six months ago.

A post on the watchdog’s website said it has “no remit to provide views or take on or contribute to new work” in the absence of a commissioner – meaning it cannot assess Ms Braverman’s plans.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery and in the UK we have a world-leading response. However, it is clear people are abusing our system when they have no right to be here, in order to frustrate their removal.

“We must be able to tackle abuses in the system and make sure foreign national offenders or those who arrive here illegally and have no right to stay in the UK are not able to misuse a system intended to protect genuine victims in order to avoid justice.”

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