Suella Braverman is gaslighting victims of modern slavery

A dangerous narrative is being spread – and victims of slavery up and down the country are being failed

Jasmine O'Connor
Tuesday 18 October 2022 10:11 BST
Sir Mo Farah reveals he was illegally trafficked to UK as a child

In towns, streets and communities all across the UK, people are trapped in modern slavery. This is not only a failure, but an affront to us all. At a time when the UK needs an urgent upgrade of existing legislation and policies on modern slavery that better protect people, instead, a dangerous narrative is being spread – and victims of slavery up and down the country are being failed.

For years, we have been challenging the UK government as it embeds its hostile immigration policies, normalising dangerous rhetoric that pitches communities against those in need of support and protection. This rhetoric harms victims and survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking – people who have already been denied their rights and freedom – by dragging them into a toxic debate that further dehumanises them.

Somewhere along the way, our government has forgotten that behind the toxic headlines about modern slavery there are victims, real people who are simply trying to live their lives free from exploitation – people who have already endured terrible suffering and that our research with the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group shows are being let down by the measures in place to protect them.

We rarely hear the voices and stories of those most affected, and are rarely reminded that this could happen to us. Without a seat at the table, how can the survivors of modern slavery tell their stories and help to improve the system that so many rely upon?

When Sir Mo Farah bravely disclosed that he was a victim of modern slavery, we had the opportunity to meet the person behind the headlines. Calls were made to ensure that Sir Mo was not pursued on immigration grounds and instead given the grace to heal from his trauma, in safety, in the UK.

We caught a glimpse of the staggering human story, the story of how human trafficking and modern slavery affect lives. We saw that this trauma is compounded by policies and narratives that conflate modern slavery and immigration. This misrepresentation needs to be fixed, and we need to make sure that the many silenced voices are elevated to deliver a serious dose of reality and humanity to our government’s policymaking.

We know from Home Office data that the number of potential victims of slavery in the UK is at an all-time high, with nearly 13,000 people referred in 2021. Experts suggest that the true number of victims of modern slavery in the UK could be more than 100,000.

Data from the Home Office itself consistently tells us that more than 90 per cent of victims referred into the system receive a positive decision on their cases – confirming that they have been victims of modern slavery.

Yet last week the home secretary, Suella Braverman, stated that people were trying to “game the system” and “derailing the UK’s policy on illegal immigration”.

Anti-Slavery International, like other experts in our field, knows of no evidence that suggests the system is being successfully abused. In fact, today, the head of the labour abuse watchdog – the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority – even challenged the Home Office narrative, confirming there is no evidence of abuse in the system.

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act sat as a centrepiece of compassionate conservatism. But these protective measures are slowly but surely being picked apart. New measures – including the Nationality and Borders Act and the Rwanda policy – are being accompanied by dangerous narratives that scapegoat victims and question their integrity, with the home secretary herself asserting last week that people are lying about being trafficked.

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The government needs to honestly listen to survivors and safeguard them against future abuse, not use them as pawns in a game of hostile rhetoric and a divide-and-rule strategy.

The government has committed to a new bill on modern slavery, but this bill must extend – rather than roll back – support and protections for all victims. We urgently need to change the way we understand and act upon modern slavery. And we all have a role to play.

The government must listen to survivors and invite them to take part in decision-making that would help make laws stronger and truly protect people. Whether at the highest levels of government or in our own communities, we need decent, compassionate people everywhere to challenge the dangerous narratives that want us to forget our humanity.

Jasmine O’Connor OBE is chief executive of Anti-Slavery International

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