Lawyers have warned that hundreds of trafficking survivors in the United Kingdom have found themselves with reduced or terminated financial support during the ongoing pandemic.
One Kenyan survivor of sex trafficking, for example, allegedly found herself with no means to access basic toiletries or to top up her cell phone in order to reach her support worker and legal aid.
The woman is now one of several whose support has been reinstated as a result of legal challenges launched by their lawyers on their individual cases.
Now the British interior ministry, the Home Office, faces a broader legal challenge over what lawyers say was a decision to cut trafficking victims’ support with no legal basis, and is being called on to reinstate all potential victims’ support.
Defending its actions, the Home Office claimed that some slavery victims did not receive their cash allowance because they were also asylum seekers, and therefore had utilities, meals, and essentials provided in their interim accommodation.
But Dame Sara Thornton, the U.K.’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, said in a letter to safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins that this ignores many victims’ needs and that their decision would only exacerbate their vulnerability in a trying time.
The Independent reports:
“Whilst providing full-board emergency accommodation may meet a person’s essential living needs, it does not recognise their status as a potential victim of modern slavery,” Dame Sarah said in the letter.
“I am aware that there is an expectation that any further essential needs, such as travel costs and toiletries are expected to be met by asylum support, but I am concerned as to whether this is happening routinely in practice.
“This is not only detrimental to their recovery, but also puts them at risk of further exploitation.”
Heather Malunga, an immigration lawyer representing the aforementioned Kenyan woman, echoed Thornton’s concerns and said that the government’s assumption that hotels will provide basic needs is very flawed.
“The government’s position is that they get toiletries in hotels, but most are not receiving basic essentials, so they have to buy their own. Clothing isn’t provided, neither are stamps or phone credit. They’re meant to be able to contact their support worker or counsellor when they’re feeling distressed, but they can’t because that money is no longer there.”
Ahmed Aydeed, director of the public law firm that issued the legal challenge, said that charities contracted by the government to provide support had seemingly been “forced into silence” and that survivors themselves had to bravely challenge the decision alone.
Rachel Smith, from Freedom United partner organization Human Trafficking Foundation, said the decision—which was made with little explanation—reflected a concerning lack of transparency.
“It simulates a situation of trafficking – when they have been receiving payments and a trafficker decides they don’t want to pay them anymore. It is re-traumatising and it could put people at risk of re-trafficking.”