Politics

Borders Bill will be 'catastrophic' for victims of modern slavery, MPs told

By placing a time period on victims of human trafficking to come forward, campaigners fear fewer perpetrators of modern slavery will be brought to justice.

Image: Flicker / Mayor McGinn

More than 100 human rights organisations have signed a letter urging MPs to scrap the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill – warning it will have ‘catastrophic’ implications for victims of modern slavery and trafficking.

The bill “discriminates” against people who have been forced to commit crimes such as begging and county lines drug dealing as well as victims of sexual exploitation, says anti-slavery charity Unseen.

Campaigners warn that under the bill, victims of modern slavery who were considered to be a “threat to public order” would be disqualified from any support, failing to take into account that many victims of trafficking are forced to commit crime as part of their exploitation. 

Vulnerable people with past convictions are often targeted by human-traffickers or exploiters who are aware that their victims will be less likely to be believed by officials due to their history. 

The view will be taken by the authorities that victims of human trafficking are “unreliable and less likely to be considered for help if (they) have a criminal past,” said Unseen CEO Andrew Wallis.

“This plays into the hands of traffickers and exploiters who will say, ‘No-one’s going to believe you.’”  

The bill would also place a time limit on victims of trafficking or slavery to identify themselves, meaning that those who have missed the time frame many never come forward for justice or support, allowing more criminals to get away with exploitation and continue to manipulate the most vulnerable.

“The government says it wants to create a ‘firm but fair’ approach to immigration, clamping down on criminals and those who exploit the system, and helping those who genuinely need it,” said Tamara Barnett of the Human Trafficking Foundation, which has coordinated the joint letter sent to MPs. 

“This bill might be firm, but it is certainly not fair. It will lead to fewer prosecutions of actual criminals, while those who genuinely need support, including children, will be failed by the new system,” she continued. 

The government currently uses the The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) as a framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support

“Human trafficking has absolutely no place in our society and we are committed to tackling these heinous crimes, whilst ensuring victims are protected and receive the support they need through our National Referral Mechanism,” a Home Office spokesperson said.

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“The Nationality and Borders Bill will go further than ever before in putting modern slavery victims’ rights into law. For example, victims may be granted temporary leave to remain in the UK so they can recover from their ordeal and help the authorities with criminal prosecutions. It will also reduce the risk of our generous safeguards being misused, ensuring that valuable resources go towards genuine victims.

“The New Plan for Immigration will seek to introduce a new and expanded ‘one-stop’ process to ensure that asylum, human rights claims, and any other protection matters are considered at the earliest opportunity, and this will be supported by an enhanced legal aid offer.”

Anti-Slavery International, The Salvation Army, the Scottish Refugee Council and homelessness charity Crisis UK are among the 108 signatories of the letter which warns that the bill will lead to “more traffickers and hardened criminals in your constituency.”

“Excluding victims with criminal convictions from support or recognition provided by the NRM will be a travesty,” said Phil Brewer, former Detective Superintendent and Metropolitan Police, responsible for combatting modern slavery.

“Survivors will be less likely to trust and ultimately work with police to help bring offenders to justice.

“These exploiters are some of the most dangerous organised criminals in the UK. Under this Bill there would be no Operation Fort – one of the UK’s largest modern slavery investigations and biggest justice success stories to date.”

Operation Fort saw three pivotal members of the largest human trafficking ring ever exposed in the UK convicted of people trafficking. The traffickers lured homeless, vulnerable and desperate people from Poland to the UK to earn money, then deprived them of every basic freedom.

“There is a real risk this will limit victim engagement in prosecutions and therefore significantly undermine the ability of law enforcement to bring traffickers to justice,” said Dame Sara Thornton, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. 

The UK Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline 08000 121 700 – it’s free, 24/7, confidential, available in more than 200 languages and is there not only for victims, but people who have concerns or need advice.

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