UK ‘lagging behind’ on efforts to tackle modern slavery as victims not given adequate support, report warns

Exclusive: Experts warn lack of financial and pastoral support for trafficking survivors, as well as an absence of secure immigration status, leaves many too afraid to give evidence against perpetrators

Anti-trafficking organisation 'Beauty for Freedom' presents art exhibition to empower young survivors

Britain is “lagging behind” in efforts to tackle modern slavery as authorities focus too heavily on law enforcement while failing to address victim support, a damning report has revealed.

Legal experts said a lack of financial, legal and pastoral support for trafficking survivors in the UK, as well as an absence of secure immigration status, is leaving many victims too afraid to give evidence against their perpetrators.

The research, funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, compares the UK’s support offer to that offered by the US, Belgium and Netherlands.

It found that trafficking victims in Britain felt their distrust of authorities was a “considerable hurdle” in them engaging with the criminal justice system.

Police, lawyers and charities have endorsed the findings, saying that survivors must feel safe in order for them to come forward and give evidence against the criminals who exploited them, and urged the Home Office to increase investment in supporting victims.

The number of prosecutions and convictions for human trafficking and modern slavery in the UK are considerably lower than the other countries. In the 2017/18 financial year, 239 suspects were charged with modern slavery offences and 185 people were convicted.

Once someone is identified as a victim of trafficking in the UK, they are offered “move-on” support – which can include ongoing accommodation, counselling, expert advice and advocacy – for a period of 45 days.

By contrast, the other countries analysed had models where they allowed victims to be assisted by support workers and services for as long as they require it.

Victims of trafficking in the UK may be granted discretionary leave in the UK to allow them to cooperate fully in any police investigation or prosecution. But the latest data shows that only 12 per cent of victims with a positive conclusive grounds decision were granted leave to remain

The US immigration authorities, meanwhile, provide a specific trafficking visa, known as the “T-visa”, for survivors to obtain legal status to remain in the US if they report the crimes to the police and engage with any investigations or prosecutions.

In light of the findings, Vernon Coaker MP, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on trafficking and modern slavery, said: “The Modern Slavery Act 2015 was an important step by parliament. Disappointingly, over three years later, while numbers of people being identified as possible victims through the National Referral Mechanism increases year on year, the number of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers remains low.

“This report goes some way to explaining this, evidencing what the police have now been saying for some time, that if victims are not looked after and do not feel safe, they either won’t come forward in the first place, they are too frightened to disclose and give evidence, or they disappear.”

Kate Roberts, head of the Human Trafficking Foundation, said: “This report confirms what the police, survivors themselves and those who provide direct support have been saying for some time, that for survivors to be able to come forward and give evidence against the criminals who exploited them they need to be safe.

“When we think about the control and coercion which constitutes slavery anything else is unrealistic. People in slavery have been taught not to speak to the authorities, and that doing so puts them at risk of removal from the UK or of retribution to them or their families.

“This is why the UK needs a clear offer to victims – that they will be safe, that their interests will be protected and that they will be given options.”

The report comes after the High Court ruled that a Home Office decision to slash financial support for more than 1,000 potential victims of trafficking by more than 40 per cent was unlawful.

Lawyers said victims whose support has been reduced struggle to afford basics, such as food and travel, placing them at high risk of being re-exploited financially, sexually and emotionally.

The government was ordered to make back-payments, which could exceed £1m, after the judge ruled that a “very substantial cut imposed unilaterally” by the department was taken on “a false basis and cannot stand”.

A Home Office spokesman said: “The government is committed to identifying and supporting the men, women and children who are victims of modern slavery, to recover from their exploitation and rebuild their lives.

“Adults ... can receive specialist and tailored support through the victim care contract, where they can receive accommodation, financial support, assistance in accessing mental and physical health care including counselling, and access to legal support.

“We have been clear that, as set out in the Modern Slavery Act, victims of modern slavery should not be prosecuted for criminal offences they were forced to commit as a result of exploitation.

“We have commissioned an independent review of the Act which will consider the implementation of the statutory defence for victims and help us to identify what more we can do to tackle these terrible crimes.”

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