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U.K. forced to drop unlawful policy penalizing trafficking survivors

  • Published on
    July 4, 2023
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  • Category:
    Law & Policy
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In January of this year, the U.K. Home Office introduced new guidance for those claiming asylum as victims of modern slavery, requiring survivors to provide immediate “objective evidence” of their exploitation to submit as part of their case. The Home Office has now withdrawn the policy after it was found to be unlawful.

Trafficking survivors seek justice

Two trafficking survivors who were refused protection under the policy brought a legal challenge against the Home Office, arguing that the guidance breached the European Convention on Human Rights, and was unfair and “irrational” given the unlikelihood of trafficking victims to have immediate proof of their exploitation.

This week the government bowed to the pressure and withdrew the policy, halting decisions on all pending modern slavery cases while the guidance is rewritten. 

Lizzie Dearden at the Independent reports:

“Survivors of trafficking cannot obtain objective evidence within the required five working days for numerous reasons. Those who are being exploited do not gather evidence of their exploitation whilst they are being exploited.” said Shalini Patel, a solicitor involved in the legal challenge.

During the time the unfair guidance was in place, negative decisions on modern slavery cases rocketed, leaving victims unprotected and without professional counseling, safe accommodation, or financial support, and vulnerable to abusers.

Worrying lack of government scrutiny

The position of Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has been sitting vacant since Dame Sara Thornton left the role over a year ago due to Home Office delays in appointing a successor. This means that when key changes to existing modern slavery protections were made there was no independent watchdog to monitor or comment on the activities.

Consideration of the “objective evidence” guidance, the drawing up of the harmful Refugee Ban Bill, and a linked expansion of the Rwanda deal to allow the deportation of trafficking victims all took place as the chair sat vacant. 

“Survivors need more support, earlier, in order to gather evidence now demanded of them, but their support is withheld unless they can provide a high level of evidence. This was never a sustainable situation, and highlights the lengths this government is willing to go to in order to decimate modern slavery protections.” said Director of anti-trafficking group After Exploitation, Maya Esslemont.

Ministers justified the recent changes with unsubstantiated claims that people reaching the U.K. through irregular routes were “abusing” modern slavery protections to seek asylum. But Freedom United along with After Exploitation and the Centre for Public Data and other charities, has repeatedly raised concerns that it is a misleading use of data to suggest fraudulent use of the system.

It is false claims like this that lead to hostile immigration policies which perpetuate modern slavery and exploitation and put people at greater risk of trafficking. Safe and humane migration systems are necessary to support trafficking survivors and build people’s resilience to trafficking.

Cases piling up

While the Home Office rushes to publish new guidance, a backlog of cases is building up. The Independent estimates based on existing data that for each day the pause is in place, around a dozen modern slavery decisions will build up with the current wait time already sitting at 18 months. The Home Office has stated it intends to publish the new version by 10 July. In the interim, no cases can be rejected.

“Alarm bells should have been ringing loudly in the Home Office” as soon as they saw the dramatic increase in rejections this year after the change to the guidance,” said Dame Sara Thornton. “But yet again it has been courageous survivors who have challenged the Home Office decisions and caused this change of approach,” 

We are urgently calling on the U.K. and governments around the world to stop using anti-trafficking rhetoric to promote support for harmful immigration policies that instead increase trafficking risks and undermine trafficking victims’ rights. If you agree that a lack of safe migration routes combined with punitive immigration policies is contributing to increasing vulnerabilities to modern slavery for people on the move, sign our petition.

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