The government has been ordered to pay damages after officials failed to assess the woman’s medical condition when she was detained, and later refused to refer her to the trafficking authorities when she said she had been a victim of slavery.
Her solicitor said she had never seen a case “so riddled with systemic failure” and that it served as a stark reminder that “fundamental and radical systemic reform” was required in the way ministers identified and protected trafficking victims.
The Namibian national, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is alleged to have been sold into slavery as a child in her home country, to a household in which she was routinely beaten and verbally abused and where men raped her and forced her to have sex with other men.
The woman, aged in her 40s, arrived in Britain in July 2017 after escaping from the abuse and was granted a visitor’s visa. Two months later on 19 September, she was arrested and taken to Yarl’s Wood after it was discovered she had been working.
Notes made by a nurse at the removal centre on the day the woman arrived describe her as a “victim of torture” and state that she claimed to have been ”beaten by a member of the family she was living with and got a fractured right arm” a few months earlier in Namibia.
Despite this, the woman underwent no formal medical assessment until weeks later, in breach of immigration law which states that detainees must be medically examined within 24 hours of their arrival in detention.
The Home Office also failed to refer her to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s framework for identifying survivors of trafficking – despite signs that she was a victim.
A medical report carried out on 10 October found the woman’s story was plausible and concluded that, given her experiences, she was not ﬁt for detention and was “certainly at risk of worsening should her detention continue”.
The woman was released on 13 October. She is now living in asylum accommodation awaiting decisions on her trafficking and asylum claims.
Deputy High Court judge John Cavanagh QC concluded the Home Office had breached the law on two counts: its failure to carry out a medical assessment of the woman within 24 hours of her being detained; and its failure to refer her to the NRM after she showed signs of being a victim of modern slavery.
The woman’s solicitor, Krisha Prathepan of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, told The Independent she had never worked on a case “so riddled with systemic failure”.
She added: “As the High Court judge said, it should be ‘very rare’ to refuse to refer a potential survivor of trafficking to the National Referral Mechanism ‘where an allegation of trafficking is made’.
“But the Home Office consistently refused to refer our client. Their refusals were based on what was deemed to be ‘irrelevant considerations’.
“The safeguards supposedly put in place by parliament and government policy-makers quite simply failed. I hope Home Office decision-makers will listen to the judge’s clear advice, that they should always be ‘alive’ to signs that someone may be a survivor of trafficking.”
“The case also serves as a stark reminder that fundamental and radical systemic reform is required before the UK’s process for identifying and protecting survivors of trafficking can be described as fit for purpose.”
It comes amid mounting concern about both the UK’s treatment of modern slavery victims and the detention of people who have been trafficked or tortured.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.
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