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NGOs warn ‘stealth legislation’ will mean the detention of more human trafficking victims

Under the new policy, the Home Office will be able detain potential victims of human trafficking due to their immigration status, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have warned.


NGOs warn ‘stealth legislation’ will mean the detention of more human trafficking victims

A group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have warned that new Government policy – that has been passed without debate – will mean that those recognised as potential victims of human trafficking will still be liable for detention due to their immigration status.

Under the changes, even those with a legal entitlement to human trafficking support will now have to provide additional evidence of vulnerability to be considered for release from detention.

The Government have yet to confirm what new evidence individuals will have to provide to be considered for release, and the Home Office has acknowledged that an increase in detained trafficking victims “may be an effect” of the new policy.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) – the body in responsible for the scrutiny of new legislation – called the Home Office’s consultation on the changes “poor practice” and pointed to the limited number of NGOs consulted on the proposals, many of whom had only two weeks to respond.

The SLSC also added that no survivor groups were included in the consultation.

The Home Office has responded to the SLSC to say that legal entitlements to support for potential victims will now be delivered from within detention rather than from within the community.

Now, a group of NGOs including After Exploitation, Anti Slavery International, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Focus on Labour Exploitation, Freedom From Torture, Medical Justice and The Helen Bamber Foundation have written to the SLSC to express their concern at the changes and warned that it will increase the number of potential victims detained under their immigration status rather than receive the correct support.

Data from After Exploitation shows that since 2019 alone, 2,914 potential victims of trafficking who should have had access to safe housing, counselling, and medical intervention were detained due to their immigration status.

The group have warned that these changes to the detention guidance will bring potential victims of human trafficking under a more ‘general’ policy for vulnerable people in detention, known as the ‘Adults at Risk’ (AAR policy).

These changes will downgrade the value of trafficking status within detention decision making and introduce a higher evidence threshold for victims to access support, the NGOs have argued.

A submission by the group to the SLSC suggests that the changes could mean that more survivors “may be detained, and for longer.”

“The very fact that a Potential Victim of Trafficking (PVoT) has been trafficked often leads to them having a negative immigration history,” the group state in the submission.

“Being under the control of a trafficker may result in the person entering the country unlawfully, being unable to claim asylum as soon as they arrive, or being unable to travel in order to report.

“Secondly, in order to benefit from a stronger protection against detention (i.e. that afforded at Level 3), once brought under the [more general] Adults at Risk (AAR) Guidance, PVoTs with a positive Reasonable Grounds decision [Potential Victim of Trafficking status issued by the Home Office] will now need to provide additional professional evidence demonstrating not only that they are an adult at risk, but that detention is likely to cause them harm. “

“Therefore, compared to the current arrangements, the amended AAR Guidance will make it significantly more difficult for PVoTs to avoid or secure release from detention,” the group concluded.

MPs have 30 days to object to the new policy otherwise it will come into force on 25 May 2021.

Labour MP John McDonnell, who is tabling the objection to the new changes, called the proposals “completely counter-productive.”

“This change in the law flies in the face of the Government’s stated aims of protecting the victims of trafficking,” said McDonnell.

“Contrary to what ministers have claimed about recognising the vulnerability of victims of trafficking, it [the changes] mean that someone trafficked will be at heightened risk of detention,” he added.

After Exploitation’s Director, Maya Esslemont, called the Government’s decision to not consult NGOs on its new policy change “unthinkable” and warned that more victims will suffer as a result.

“Modern slavery is a deeply traumatising form of exploitation, which almost without exception features severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse,” said Esslemont.

“This policy will condemn more survivors to time behind bars, even when the Home Office recognises they have a legal right to support.”

“It is vital that MPs work at pace to challenge this stealth legislation. This significant change introduces a clear risk to some of the most vulnerable in our society,” Esslemont concluded.

Anti Slavery International’s Researcher and Co-ordinator, Anna Sereni, said that the changes were “taking a backward step” and that the policy appeared “destined to punish slavery survivors because of their commitment to hostile immigration policies.”

“Survivors of slavery often have complex physical and mental health needs and require unique support to be able to disclose their experiences,” said Sereni.

“The identification of trafficked persons in detention is often poor because people are unable to disclose their experiences in the prison-like settings of detention.

“The Government should consider why historically it took the decision not to detain slavery survivors, knowing this would be viewed as a penalty and breach international law,” Sereni concluded.

Bail For Immigration Detainees (BID)’s Research Co-ordinator, Rudy Schulkind, said that the changes would “weaken already poor safeguards” and warned that the impact on victims’ mental and physical wellbeing would be “disastrous.”

Rebecca Kingi, Senior Policy Manager at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), warned that the changes serve the interests of perpetrators, not survivors”, whilst Helen Bamber Foundation’s Medical Director, Professor Cornelius Katona called the proposal “morally repugnant.”

Medical Justice's Director, Emma Ginn, described the experiences of those on the frontline who see first-hand the effects of detention on survivors of human trafficking.

"We are extremely concerned about these proposed changes to the policies that should protect survivors of trafficking from immigration detention,” said Ginn.

"Our volunteer clinicians have repeatedly seen and documented the effects of detention on survivors. The locked doors, the sound of officer’s footsteps approaching, the jangling of the keys, the sudden unannounced transfers at night, the sounds of other distressed detainees, the profound lack of any control over one’s circumstances – all can be highly retraumatising for people who have already experienced abuse at the hands of traffickers.”

"We urge the Home Office to reconsider: rather than weakening existing safeguards, there is an urgent need for the government to strengthen protections for survivors and to ensure such measures are properly effective."

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