Elaine* started to worry that her son Joseph* was being groomed when he was 12. He would go out to the local playground and come home wearing new trainers and eating boxes of fried chicken that she hadn’t given him money for. She knew something wasn’t right but felt helpless to act.
“I’d tell him he shouldn’t be getting food from other people. He would say they were his ‘big brothers’.
“I was a single mum and I worked nights so I wasn’t always around,” says the Jamaican woman, 58, who moved to the UK with her son when he was a baby after fleeing an abusive marriage.
In a pattern common across the country, her son had fallen victim to a county lines gang, which often lure children into transporting drugs or weapons for them with gifts and a sense of belonging in return.
“Once he came home with a cut on his face and he said he fell off his bike. I could sometimes see the panic and fear in his eyes, but he would always say: ‘Mum, I’m OK’,” Elaine recalls.
At 14 years old, Joseph was convicted of possessing a knife. He believes that at this point, local police should have recognised he was being groomed by older gang members.
“Those early moments were pivotal. Mum was always working. She did her best, but I didn’t have positive role models. I didn’t have anyone to challenge me about what I was doing,” the now-29-year-old tells The Independent.
Three years later, Joseph was convicted of conspiracy to supply and sentenced to 18 months in jail.
He was released after 11 months and hoped to turn his life around. But not being a British citizen meant that being sentenced to more than a year automatically made him liable for deportation.
“I knew it wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t even apply for a driving licence. I tried to get a job but was told I wasn’t allowed to work because I was under immigration control,” he says. “I spiralled. I did things that I shouldn’t have. It was all because I told one person about my situation, who got me back in touch with the same guy I was working for before.”
Within two years, Joseph was convicted again of conspiracy to supply and handed a seven-year prison sentence. Last month, he was transferred from prison to an immigration removal centre and told he would be deported on a charter flight to Jamaica, a country he has no memory of.
The flight took off early on Wednesday morning without Joseph on it. His removal directions were cancelled hours before it was due to leave, after his lawyer identified him as a potential victim of child trafficking and referred him to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the Home Office’s modern slavery identification framework.
He is one of many non-British people whom the government says is “abusing” the system by claiming to be a victim of trafficking in an attempt to delay their removal.
But Joseph, who has two British children, says he only recently realised that he had been a victim, and didn’t know the NRM existed until he was taken on by his new lawyer.
Under its new immigration bill, the Home Office wants to limit the time period during which those facing deportation can raise these claims, and disqualify anyone who has been sentenced to prison for more than 12 months from receiving modern slavery support in the UK.
Earlier this week, senior police officers and lawyers warned that these changes risked hampering the prosecution of human traffickers in the UK and making it more difficult for people to escape exploitation.
Cross-party MPs, including two former Tory leaders, have also criticised the bill, which is currently going through parliament, saying they will “water down” vital protections for modern slavery victims.
Tamara Barnett, of the Human Trafficking Foundation, describes a “real problem” of criminal exploitation which begins in childhood “not being recognised” by the authorities.
“Instead we punish people for a life they have not chosen, while the real criminals behind the illegal activities remain untouched,” she says.
In another case, Clive*, 23, faced deportation on the same charter flight as Joseph, and was taken off in the final hours for the same reason.
The Jamaican national, who has lived in the UK since he was three months old, tells The Independent that from the age of 12, “certain people” in his local area would “tell [him] to do things such as run drugs and give him a small amount of money in return”.
A psychologist’s assessment of him in August 2021, seen by The Independent, states that at the time he was a “highly vulnerable teenager” who was “used as a carrier of weapons” by criminal gangs.
Clive, who spent much of his adolescence in the care system, was found possessing a firearm in 2016, for which he served two years.
He says that on his release from prison, he tried to “distance [him]self”, but that the same people claimed he owed them money, making it difficult to avoid them. He was soon rearrested on another firearms charge, and subsequently detained and handed removal directions.
“They always try to have you under control. Now I’ve learned what they were doing and distanced myself, but the Home Office is still letting my past affect me,” he says. “It was my first ever conviction. The police should have asked: ‘what is a teenager doing with a gun?’ There was clearly someone above me calling the shots.”
Government data shows that almost 1,000 children who have left care since 2018 have subsequently been deported, including 331 in 2020.
Since being taken off the charter flight list, Joseph and Clive have already been recognised as potential modern slavery victims, with a final decision pending. Home Office figures show that nine in 10 people who left detention after being referred to the NRM in 2019 went on to receive a positive initial decision, with most still awaiting a final decision.
One solicitor, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, says that all of the nine deportation cases she had represented since 2019 who had been referred to the NRM as suspected victims of child trafficking had since been confirmed to be victims or potential victims.
“There needs to be a recognition that these people are victims, rather than perpetrators, and are treated as such from the outset, rather than shoving them off to juvenile prison,” she says. “For foreign nationals, even when they come out of prison and they want to turn their lives around, they’re not allowed to work. They can’t do anything meaningful to get their lives back on track. They remain vulnerable to exploitation.”
The lawyer said the government’s immigration bill was “dangerous” because it took “every layer of protection away” from this cohort.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Those with no right to be in the UK and foreign national offenders should be in no doubt that we will do whatever is necessary to remove them.
“We are committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery, but we will not tolerate those who seek to abuse the system to prevent their lawful removal. That is why we fully review all cases, with many going through the courts, to ensure there are no outstanding legal barriers – such as modern slavery or trafficking claims – that would prevent removal from the UK.”
*Names have been changed
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