The UK’s modern slavery framework was almost five times less likely to recognise victims from non-European countries than those from Britain last year, figures show. This is despite the fact that many of the top countries for human trafficking are outside Europe. Maya Esslemont examines ways we can ensure victims do not slip through the net and miss out on vital support.
In 2019, a staggering 10,627 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the official system through which modern slavery victims are identified and provided with support – according to government data released this month. That is a 52 percent increase on the year before (6,986).
The term “potential victim” refers to people who are recognised by the authorities, such as social workers or police officers, as having indicators of severe exploitation. Once potential victims are identified, they are subject to two further stages of decision-making via the NRM. The NRM, currently managed by the Home Office, is the only route to accessing basic support relating to trafficking, such as safe housing, medical attention and, in some cases, an allowance of £65 per week.
It is difficult for many trafficking victims navigating the lengthy NRM process to provide evidence of their experiences, for which there is rarely a paper trail. Historically, charities have argued that non-EU victims are less likely to reach the final, “conclusive grounds” stage of the NRM with the same success as EU and UK nationals, despite many of the top sources for trafficking falling outside the EU.
Fears of a possible nationality bias were briefly addressed in a 2014 review of the NRM by the independent anti-slavery commissioner. Some argue that nationality discrepancies can be due to “how and when victims are identified and lack of evidence of a crime”. The report found that the proportion of potential victims that received a “positive grounds” decision among the top 10 countries of origin in 2013 were “fairly similar” and “do not suggest a nationality bias”.
Nevertheless, NGOs remain concerned by an apparent conflict of interest between the Home Office’s loyalty to immigration enforcement and its responsibility to recognise vulnerable people.
Breaking down the data
In 2019, the NRM recognised 416 British people as trafficking victims out of 501 referrals – an acceptance rate of 83 percent. The NRM also found 65 out of 144 EU nationals to be trafficking victims (45 percent).
In comparison, only 17 percent of the 1,192 people from outside of the EU who were suspected of suffering trafficking were found to be victims.
Some of the top source countries for trafficking, such as China, Vietnam, Nigeria and Albania, fall outside of the UK or EU. Even if we include all “pending” decisions, the number of rejected reasonable grounds decisions is still nearly five times higher amongst non-EU claims than amongst claims by UK nationals.
Official recognition via the NRM is vital, as this is the only way that many victims can access consideration for immigration security, safe house accommodation, medical, legal and mental health support relating to exploitation.
Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, this begs the question: how are we protecting victims of slavery who are made doubly vulnerable by immigration insecurity?
What can be done?
First of all, the government must recognise that any response intended to support trafficking victims must recognise that victims exist beyond the NRM. For example, After Exploitation has reported that thousands of potential trafficking victims have been held in immigration detention between 2018 and 2019 before being recognised by the NRM.
Yet the government rarely acknowledges that policies intended to punish undocumented migrants and asylum seekers will also punish slavery survivors.
For this reason, we argue that it is likely that detention has led to victims of trafficking being held in close quarters during this contagious pandemic. The government must back calls by Detention Action, Women for Refugee Women and others to suspend the use of Immigration Removal Centres during this Covid-19 outbreak.
The government must also heed calls to give slavery victims a right to at least 12 months of support after authorities have confirmed that they are a victim. This is vital, as even recognised victims may struggle to access housing or benefits.
Secondly, given that non-EU nationals fare comparatively poorly within the NRM, it is reasonable to believe there may be instances modern slavery victims slip through the net. We are concerned that those who do not get formal recognition will have no access to support and “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) – meaning they may struggle to access benefits or healthcare due to their immigration status. The government must ensure that those rejected by the NRM are granted access to social security through the suspension of NRPF restrictions.
The government also announced last week it will not evict anyone placed in accommodation through the NRM for the next three months amid the coronavirus pandemic, regardless of whether or not they are found to be modern slavery victims. But it is unclear what safety net, if any, protects those who were rejected by the NRM prior to this announcement.
Thirdly, we need to evaluate the level of financial support we are giving victims amid the pandemic. Currently, eligible victims of trafficking receive cash payments of £65 each week, partially in recognition of the fact that those without immigration security do not always have the right residency documents to open a bank account.
It is vital that this allowance is raised to at least £85, an increase in line with other similar benefits, and that access to banking is made universally available to victims. This will enable survivors to stay at home as much as possible, as per government guidance, and do grocery shopping online where possible.
Finally, the government must re-evaluate the suitability of the Home Office to act as the sole arbitrator of vulnerability in trafficking cases and detention gate keeping. This is because of what we consider to be an inherent conflict of interest between the Home Office’s loyalty to immigration enforcement and its responsibility to recognise vulnerable people.
Whilst we are glad that the government is releasing higher quality data since After Exploitation’s launch, more must be done. We still have no idea how many rejected or confirmed trafficking victims later secure immigration security. Yet, the little information we do have is enough to cause concern around objectivity in decision-making, and the impact of wider immigration policy on survivors.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of EachOther.