More than 4,000 people with trafficking indicators detained in less than two years

New data shows wide-scale detention of people recognised by first responders, such as the police or social workers, as having warning signs of trafficking between January 2019 and September 2020.

More than 4,000 people showing signs of being the victim of trafficking have been detained in prison-like settings in less than two years, new data shows.

The exclusive figures, obtained via Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the non-profit organisations Women For Refugee Women and After Exploitation, show the number of people who have been held in unsuitable settings despite being referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the framework for identifying and supporting survivors of modern slavery.

More than 70% (2,914) of those detained have been successfully recognised as ‘potential victims’ through the NRM process but have still been deemed suitable for detention, whilst long waiting times for outcomes mean that only 194 of those detained since January 2019 have now received their status as a confirmed victim.

Social workers in local authorities, and certain other professionals in social care, have a duty to refer a potential victim of modern slavery into the National Referral Mechanism.

Based on the current success and rejection rates of NRM claims, a forecasted 1,651 detained during this period will eventually be recognised as ‘confirmed’ victims of trafficking.

In 2020 alone, 969 people with trafficking indicators were detained despite the scaling back of detention due to the pandemic.

It is not clear from the FOI response how many detained last year were potential, confirmed, or rejected trafficking victims, which campaigners say highlights the need for consistently published national statistics on long-term survivor outcomes.

Included in the figures are people like Voke – whose real name has been changed for her protection – who was detained in Yarl’s Wood for nearly eight months in 2017.

While in the detention centre, Voke was referred into the National Referral Mechanism and given a negative ‘reasonable grounds’ decision. Three years later, the Home Office reversed this decision and recognised her conclusively as a survivor of trafficking.

“The Home Office didn’t ask me what had happened to me before they detained me. Then, when I told them in detention, they dismissed it,” Voke said.
“When I finally received my positive decision I thought: why have you only decided to believe me now? My story is the same as it was when I told you years ago.”

Non-Governmental Oragnisations have warned that ‘Detention Gatekeeping’ – the function intended to spot people too vulnerable for detention – is rarely used. According to statistics shared with Parliament last year during the EU withdrawal debate, the function has only prevented an average of 575 detentions per year since 2016, compared to 24,000-32,000 decisions to detain each year.

Medical Justice, a charity working for health rights of detainees, said that immigration detention is known to cause lasting harm to mental health, especially for those with previous histories of trauma, such as trafficking.

“These numbers, although high, are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. We frequently encounter survivors of trafficking in detention who have not been recognised as such by anyone before, despite having gone through the Home Office processes that should have identified them.”

The figures come less than a month after the Government refused to back calls by Iain Duncan Smith, and other backbench Conservatives, to protect human trafficking survivors from deportation and detention during the first year of their final trafficking decision.

Maya Esslemont, Director of After Exploitation, said the Government was punishing survivors for not having an immigration status that the Government itself refuses to provide for them.

“We are deeply concerned by the sheer scale with which potential survivors are being detained, particularly as the figures come to light a month after the Government refused to protect survivors from this practice.”

“The Government routinely acknowledges the physical, financial and interpersonal devastation caused by modern slavery, but will not act despite evidence that victims are being treated like criminals as a result of their immigration status.

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