Survivors of modern slavery are being sent to prison for crimes they were forced to commit instead of being identified as victims and receiving government support in the U.K. In a recent survey of prison workers, it was revealed that over half felt the number of survivors in prison was grossly underestimated.
Forced to do the crime and then made to do time
In the U.K., trafficking victims are often forced to work at cannabis farms, in “county lines” as drug runners, as well as gang-related petty crimes like pickpocketing, according to The Independent. One person interviewed who worked in the Northern Ireland Prison Service reported that a large number of the foreign nationals they speak with in prison say they were enslaved or trafficked.
One modern slavery survivor said:
“…people (like myself) that were being forced to do this, they end up being sentenced to three years. I was a young child who was sent into the hands of a predator without knowing.”
Another report found from The Guardian revealed earlier this year that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are often “disappeared” by traffickers from Home Office hotels. According to Silvia Berastegui, from not-for-profit Hibiscus Initiatives, it’s a continual occurrence for survivors of trafficking to be criminalized for crimes they committed while living in modern slavery.
More survivors than perpetrators in prison
The study was led by Dr. Marija Jovanovic from the University of Essex, who said people like to think the government addresses modern slavery by arresting the perpetrators and identifying and protecting survivors. But instead of being protected, Jovanovic found that many survivors were being sent to prison for crimes they were forced to commit, while sometimes the perpetrators went free.
Dr. Jovanovic stated:
“Shockingly, given how few convictions there are on modern slavery charges, it’s not out of the question that there might be more survivors than perpetrators in UK prisons.”
Survivors interviewed as part of the study said they felt it was easier for authorities to put victims in prison than offering them support. Modern Slavery PEC, the organization that funded the study, said the study shows more needs to be done to improve support and identification practices for people affected by modern slavery. Towards that, the Ministry of Justice has launched a new campaign to raise awareness amongst staff about modern slavery and has published new guidance on how to support victims. However, for many it will be too little too late.
As one survivor said:
“I still have the shame of being considered as a criminal, knowing that I have never, would never even hurt a mosquito, but I’m labelled in this country as a criminal.”