The detention of trafficking victims is a national scandal. Why was the proof hidden for so long?

Now we know the truth, only a commitment to transparency can pave the way to meaningful reform

Maya Esslemont@Messlemont
Friday 18 October 2019 09:53
Home Office forced to defend refusal to disclose detention of hundreds of modern slavery victims

Few could deny the severity of modern slavery, a crime capable of leaving lasting legacies of sexual, physical and psychological abuse. In 2015, both sides of the political spectrum joined forces to increase victim support through the Modern Slavery Act. One year after the Act, Theresa May wrote in a widely reprinted Times column that “victims of slavery must go free”.

This was the same year I met a victim named T.

T was a 24-year-old man who worked 12-hour days without pay, completing “odd jobs”, from cleaning to landscaping, for disinterested or oblivious homeowners. If he or any others working for his trafficker felt fatigued, they would be screamed at, beaten, or given an elixir to make them “feel stronger”. T still gets headaches since drinking this unknown substance. Sharing a room with 12 others, without beds, he described the conditions as “torture”.

Like many survivors of modern slavery, the “push” factors behind his journey to the UK were life-threatening. As a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, in a country which routinely imprisoned men and women for being gay, he quickly accepted the opportunity of employment offered by a family friend bragging of connections in the UK. When T arrived, it transpired that his life-long confidant made his fortunes as an agent for traffickers. T soon found himself being exploited daily.

At the time, T’s story struck me as exceptional. But we now know his experience is, sadly, commonplace. In the last three months alone, 2,320 modern slavery referrals were made to the UK’s framework for recognising and supporting survivors of exploitation, called the National Referral Mechanism.

In the UK, even if victims of slavery endure the often lengthy process of “proving” their experience through the National Referral Mechanism, those fortunate enough to achieve state recognition of this crime are not entitled to automatic immigration protection. Amongst trafficking victims who are “undocumented”, this lack of security poses a significant barrier to accessing help. Most concerningly, it allows traffickers to threaten victims with deportation, allowing these abusers to keep vulnerable people dependent on the minimal shelter and food they’re given under slavery.

T escaped his trafficker in between “jobs” and was inconsolable. He ran through traffic and asked strangers for help in French, but many struggled to help until an older woman with basic understanding of the language took him to a police station. Had T engaged with the National Referral Mechanism, and secured the status of “potential victim of trafficking”, he would be entitled to safe housing. Instead, T was transferred to an Immigration Removal Centre for two months. He believes his status as a West African national took precedence over his experience as a victim.

In recent months, charities, journalists and MPs have become increasingly aware of the need for policies that protect survivors of slavery who may be, by the nature of their victimhood, undocumented migrants. Yet requests for data were denied by both the Home Office and the Immigration Minister under Theresa May’s tenure. Caroline Nokes MP claimed a matter of months ago that “no central data” was held on trafficking and immigration, making it impossible to know how many survivors were at risk of further vulnerability under Hostile Environment policies.

In reality, we now know detailed data is held about people who were forced into slavery. And the truth should shock us.

As part of a data-mapping project called After Exploitation, I submitted Freedom of Information requests which revealed that 507 potential slavery victims were detained last year alone. Victims were also deported to re-trafficking hotspots such as Vietnam and Albania.

Safeguards introduced to prevent the detention of vulnerable migrants failed on hundreds of occasions to recognise victims of crime in need of support. Behind each statistic is real human suffering and stories which have yet to be heeded by policy makers.

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Since the release of our report, the government has not committed to disclosing survivor statistics which could help facilitate victim-focused policies. We continue to ask for vital information, such as the number of victims denied immigration protection. Some answers by the Home Office are delayed by as much as two months, whilst others have been rejected outright.

Each Anti-Slavery Day, government bodies reaffirm commitments to put “victims first”. Yet, without evidence to hold such departments to account, it has been impossible for MPs and journalists to discern rhetoric from tangible action.

Until we secure regular reporting on how victims are treated, and a commitment to protect survivors, both our Home Office and traffickers are free to victimise some of this country’s most vulnerable people.

Maya Esslemont is a freelance writer and the director of After Exploitation, a data-mapping project tracking the outcomes of slavery survivors in the U

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