Impact for modern slavery victims under new government legislation

March 14, 2023

The Government has announced new legislation aimed to prevent illegal immigration to the UK – it also impacts those who appear to be victims of modern slavery. 

Whilst understanding we need to try and stop vulnerable people risking their lives to make dangerous journeys across the English Channel, we believe the Illegal Migration Bill is fundamentally flawed. Traffickers will be celebrating the Bill as it will in effect offer them impunity, allowing them to make millions whilst inflicting misery on their victims. 

Under the proposed legislation, anyone who has entered the UK illegally and claimed to be a victim of modern slavery will – except in very limited circumstances – be unable to access Government support and instead will be removed from the country at the earliest opportunity. 

Although it is difficult to be sure, we estimate up to one in four survivors we work with, many of whom have supported successful prosecutions, have arrived in the UK illegally. Some have been forced into hidden compartments in the back of lorries, forced here for the sole reason of exploitation. Many others have arrived under false pretensions. 

These include men and women who have been raped countless times in brothels around the country, those who have been forced to work in dangerous conditions and have lifelong medical issues as a result, and those held in domesic servitude only allowed to leave their home to take bags to the bin. 

We believe that all victims of modern slavery and human trafficking should receive support and protection, and for those who have been exploited but arrived illegally, not be threatened with deportation. Under the proposed legislation victims will not receive help and that means the legislation could deprive tens of thousands of victims in the UK of their rights and with it the opportunity to bring those responsible for human trafficking to justice. 

We are concerned about the impact on a number of levels – here are three reasons why…

Reason one – It’ll drive the problem further underground 

Trafficking by nature is a hidden issue. It is all around us, but we don’t see it. There are two reasons – first because so few of us know how to spot the signs of exploitation, second because victims are often fearful of coming forward. The threat of deportation and no provision of help will simply add to this fear, driving it further underground – making it harder to detect and at the same time increasing the number of those who are exploited as unscrupulous employers and traffickers take advantage of the lack of protection and support offered to migrants entering the UK illegally – including those deceived and brought against their will.

Reason two – without care, investigations will fail

Whether or not a victim of human trafficking agrees to work with police, we believe that they deserve care. We also know without it, they will not engage with investigations and that means those responsible will continue to act with impunity. 

Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes in the world, worth tens of billions. Those responsible rarely get prosecuted. When they do, it is almost always because one of their victims is willing to give evidence and helps the police to build the case. 

Under this legislation, victims who have entered the UK illegally – including when they’ve been brought here against their will – will be put into detention centres and sent home at the earliest opportunity. That is the opposite of what survivors need. They need time and space to come to terms with their experience and to begin to trust again. 

Many victims have been subjected to or threatened with extreme violence – they may well have been told that if they say anything, their families will be targeted. It takes time and dedication to build trust and create openness. Under this legislation there would be no chance of doing so and that will only come at the expense of prosecutions – traffickers will get away with the crime, free to continue. 

Take Julia, a survivor of sexual exploitation who was smuggled to the UK from Eastern Europe. She was hidden in the back of a lorry and once here raped up to 16 times a day in brothels around the UK. When she was found by police, she was understandably highly traumatised and vulnerable. If the new Bill was in place, she would be put in a detention centre and sent home. 

But because she was able to access care, we were able to help Julia get the care she needed. Over time she helped build the case against her traffickers – leading to a pan-European criminal network being dismantled and some 120 other victims identified by police. 

Reason three – the legislation may well make the situation worse 

The above simply makes us fear that the situation will make the system worse. The proposed bill will not only make detection of trafficking victims more difficult but will likely increase the  prevalence of modern slavery as criminals take advantage of the lack of protections. Those sent home will be at large risk of being re-trafficked – the criminals responsible will be buoyed by the knowledge that there is even less chance of being caught.

Which is why we say those celebrating this legislation will be the traffickers, who know that they will be able to work with even greater impunity. 

Our position 

Very simply we think that the Government is wrong and is at risk of causing irreparable damage to the fight against human trafficking. Ministers must take action to address modern slavery, which is happening in communities up and down the UK – not make it easier to get away with the crime.  

The Modern Slavery Act should be strengthened. This month we’ve recommended that cuckooing become a specific crime. We need a national register for modern slavery offenders – like the sex offenders register – to help police properly monitor offenders and greater focus on prosecutions. And regardless of whether someone is a UK citizen or brought to the country illegally, we believe all victims should have a minimum of 12 months tailored support after leaving the NRM and Victim Navigators embedded with police to help victims engaging with the criminal justice process.