Ministers are planning to make it more difficult for trafficking survivors to be released from detention as part of plans to prevent serious criminals from taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards by using them to prevent their removal from the country.
But NGOs warn that the changes would condemn more genuine victims to time behind bars and mark a “backward step” on the UK’s commitment to protect and support survivors of slavery.
The Home Office plans to bring forward the changes in the form of a statutory instrument, a form of legislation which enables the government to change policies without them having to pass through Parliament.
Labour MP John McDonnell has tabled an Early Day Motion to oppose the plans, with the former shadow chancellor saying they “fly in the face” of the government’s stated aims of protecting the victims of trafficking and warned that it would “deter victims from coming forward”.
Shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch warned that the measures would discourage victims from coming forward, both preventing them from accessing support and potentially helping human trafficking gangs.
“Little wonder the government is trying to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny, confirming fears that they are undermining efforts to tackle the horrors of modern slavery,” she added.
Nearly 3,000 people identified as potential victims of trafficking - making them eligible for access to safe housing and counselling - have been detained due to their immigration status since January 2019, figures show.
Under current Home Office policy, if someone in immigration detention is identified as a potential victim of modern slavery they are automatically considered for release, unless their detention can be justified on grounds of public order.
However, the department’s plans - set to come into force from 25 May 2021 – will mean that to be considered for release, suspected victims will be required to provide medical evidence that their ongoing detention would place them at “future harm”, as is the case with all immigration detainees.
In a submission to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, the Home Office admitted that “some individuals may, as a result of the changes, be more likely to be detained, or have their detention continued, than would currently be the case”.
Expert organisations including Anti-Slavery International, After Exploitation and Medical Justice have raised concern that the change would weaken the protections for potential victims of trafficking and result in more of them being detained for a longer time.
They point out that the very fact that a victim has been trafficked often leads to them having a negative immigration history, as being under the control of a trafficker may result in the person entering the country unlawfully or being unable to claim asylum as soon as they arrive.
Responding to the concerns in submissions to the committee, the Home Office said detention decisions were made on a “case-by-case basis” and that vulnerable people would be detained “only when the evidence of vulnerability in their particular case is outweighed by the immigration considerations”.
The department added that existing protections for people identified as trafficking victims, such as the 45-day Recovery and Reflection period, would continue – but from inside detention.
Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Sara Thornton told The Independent: “Practitioners are concerned that this change will make things slower and tougher for victims to be released from detention.
“I expect the Home Office to monitor the impact of this change to ensure that this is not the case and to ensure that vulnerable people are not held in detention when they need support.”
Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation, said: “It is unthinkable that such serious changes to the treatment of survivors, already made vulnerable by abuse, have been introduced without any real consultation or parliamentary debate.
“This policy will condemn more survivors to time behind bars, even when the Home Office recognises they have a legal right to support. It is vital that MPs work at pace to challenge this stealth legislation.”
In wider proposed changes to modern slavery protections published over the weekend, the Home Office said it would consult on whether to “strengthen the threshold” for deciding whether someone is a potential victim of modern slavery during the initial assessment.
The consultation will also seek to enable protections to be withheld from individuals who have received prison sentences of over a year, as well as people who pose a threat to national security, the department said.
It comes as the Home Office is set to announce wider changes to the immigration system in a bid to make it “firm but fair”, including plans that will see genuine refugees who arrive in Britain facing deportation and “tough” criminal offences for those attempting to enter the UK via unauthorised routes.
Responding to the statutory instrument, Anna Sereni, researcher and coordinator at Anti Slavery International, accused ministers of “punishing slavery survivors because of their commitment to hostile immigration policies”.
“By increasing the detention of slavery survivors, the government is taking a backward step on its world leading commitment to protect and support survivors of slavery,” she added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Government’s generous safeguards for victims are open to abuse by failed asylum seekers or foreign criminals who have no right to be here. Attempts to cheat the system diverts resources away from genuine victims of trafficking, persecution and serious harm.”
They said the changes would fix an “anomaly” in the system so that slavery victims would be treated consistently with other vulnerable people in detention.
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