New Home Office policy risks ‘driving human trafficking victims underground’, experts warn

Government’s own modern slavery tsar says she is ‘extremely concerned’ about plans to grant immigration enforcement teams power to make decisions on trafficking cases

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 12 November 2021 08:00 GMT
Ministers have introduced a new ‘immigration enforcement’ decision-making body to deal with trafficking claims from people facing removal
Ministers have introduced a new ‘immigration enforcement’ decision-making body to deal with trafficking claims from people facing removal (Alamy Stock Photo)

Experts have warned that victims of trafficking risk being “driven underground” under new Home Office plans to grant immigration enforcement teams the power to decide on modern slavery cases.

The government’s own slavery tsar has said she is “extremely concerned that the move risks “failing to identify potential victims” and marks a “step backwards” in Britain’s response to modern slavery.

In new guidance published this week, the department reveals that it has introduced a new decision-making body to deal with referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s trafficking identification framework - specifically from people facing deportation from the UK.

Dubbed the “Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority” (IECA), the team is separate from the existing “Single Competent Authority” (SCA), which previously made decisions on all modern slavery claims.

The guidance states that the IECA will be responsible for a “specific cohort” of adult NRM cases, including people in immigration removal centres and foreign national offenders who are subject to deportation.

It comes after ministers pledged to prevent non-British nationals from being able to “frustrate immigration action” by disclosing late in the process that they have suffered exploitation. Campaigners believe the new policy is part of this effort.

A Home Office spokesperson said the change was about “ensuring that those making decisions are able to access the information they need to make the right decisions without unnecessary delay”.

“When a potential victim of modern slavery is referred into the NRM, it is important that they receive a decision as quickly as possible to provide certainty and secure the correct support to assist with their recovery,” they said.

But Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton said there was “significant” risk that modern slavery victims whose cases are assessed by immigration enforcement would have their cases judged by “considerations about their immigration status rather than their rights to protection as victims of serious crime”.

In a letter to home secretary Priti Patel on Thursday, Dame Sara said: “I am extremely concerned that by introducing the IECA and returning to a dual system approach, we are taking a step backwards in our response to modern slavery with considerable implications for victims.”

She also raised alarm that there had been “no consultation” about this proposal, with the change only announced on the day on which the change was implemented.

Lawyers and charities echoed her concerns, saying the move risked “muddling” immigration enforcement and victim identification, which they said would “play into the hands of exploiters who use the threat of detention to prevent victims seeking help”.

Kate Roberts, head of policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), said introducing the new decision-making body was a “backwards step which risks undermining the integrity of the UK’s identification system”.

“It makes no sense and risks creating inconsistencies in decision making which allow exploitation to thrive as victims are driven underground and made vulnerable to re- exploitation by the system failing to correctly identify them,” she added.

A solicitor who has represented a number of clients in removal centres with trafficking claims, who did not wish to be named for fear of reprisals, said the policy change “on its face appears discriminatory”.

“The shifting of the decision making for this specific cohort […] indicates an underlying suspicion and distrust of foreign national offenders who raise trafficking claims. We have no information about how the IECA is constituted; its relationship with immigration enforcement more broadly; or how it is intended to operate,” she added.

“Baseless accusations of individuals ‘abusing the system’ is unfair, and viewed through that lens is it is difficult to see how the decision making process of this hybrid body can be neutral.”

Senior police and lawyers raised concerns earlier this week about the Home Office’s wider plans to reduce the number of trafficking claims from immigration detainees, saying this would “water down” vital protections for victims.

They warned that it can often take a considerable amount of time for trafficking survivors to disclose their exploitation, meaning reducing the time they are given could hinder prosecutions.

Dame Sara has also previously warned that Ms Patel’s wider immigration plans could leave trafficking victims “excluded” from support and have their existing vulnerabilities “exacerbated”.

The Home Office spokesperson added: “The government is committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery; ensuring that victims are provided with the support they need to begin rebuilding their lives and that those responsible are prosecuted.”

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