By Isabella Cipirska
Exploited, traumatised, living in fear. The moment a modern slavery victim’s situation is exposed should be the moment their journey to recovery begins.
But what happens next is far from a simple story.
Slipping through the net
Police carrying out a raid, or any other designated ‘first responders’ who come across suspected modern slavery victims, are supposed to refer them to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) - the UK’s framework for identifying victims and ensuring they receive support.
However, figures obtained by the organisation After Exploitation found that one in five of the 4,355 people identified as potential trafficking victims during a four-month period in 2019 were not referred to the NRM.
Adults can only be referred with their consent - and there are several reasons victims may be reluctant, according to Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation.
First responders could include police officers, immigration officers or Border Force staff - often the very people victims have been encouraged by their traffickers to fear most. Victims, particularly those with insecure immigration status, may have been told they will be deported and treated like criminals, she said.
“It’s highly unlikely that you will be as comfortable working with a police officer, compared to if you were in a safe space, accessing legal support,” Ms Esslemont said. “You would be far more likely to feel protected.”
The figures show major discrepancies between the referral rates for different first responders. Half of the potential victims identified by UK Border Force staff were not referred to the NRM, while police officers did not refer one in four potential victims (27%) - showing victims may be “slipping through the net”.
The Home Office said these figures were “not a fair representation of referrals to the NRM” given that adults have to consent.
Last year, the Government promised to provide ‘places of safety’ - a new service providing vulnerable victims rescued from exploitation with a safe space, where they can remain for up to three days while they consider whether to enter the NRM.
But Ms Esslemont stressed that unless this includes access to legal advice, it would “basically be meaningless”. Victims need to feel comfortable sharing their story, without fear of being deported or detained, she said, in order to “genuinely have a choice of considering referral”.
‘A complete lottery’ of support
Once someone is referred to the NRM, the Home Office will decide whether they are indeed a modern slavery victim through a two-stage process.
An initial ‘reasonable grounds’ decision is supposed to be made within five days and, if positive, a victim is granted a minimum 45-day period of support while a final decision is made.
This is supposed to include safe accommodation and access to specialist services - but this support does not always materialise.
A report by the charity Hibiscus found a significant number of women were being housed in asylum accommodation - which was ‘unsuitable’, ‘unsafe’ and putting them at risk of ‘re-traumatisation, re-exploitation and re-trafficking’, the charity said.
Ms Esslemont said it was “a complete lottery as to whether or not someone is given the accommodation they need”.
Some even end up detained in ‘prison-like’ settings - a total of 2,914 potential victims between January 2019 and September 2020, figures obtained by After Exploitation and Women For Refugee Women show.
This is despite several safeguards overseen by the Home Office, including ‘Detention Gatekeeping’ which is supposed to identify immigrants who are too vulnerable to be detained.
An uncertain future
A final ‘conclusive grounds’ decision means the Home Office has definitively determined a person is a modern slavery victim.
But for those who receive a positive decision, the limited support available leaves them facing “a very uncertain future”, according to Louise Gleich, senior policy officer on human Trafficking at CARE.
While victims get 45 days more support, a positive decision triggers the end of their support and is designed to help them move on, according to the Home Office.
“They are at risk of homelessness and re-trafficking, or they get stuck in the safehouse system and cannot properly begin the process of recovery and rebuilding their lives,” Ms Gleich said.
“This uncertainty means that many are not in a position to engage with police investigations and prosecutions because they are naturally focused on their immediate future and basic needs.”
The Home Office said it was wrong to imply that victims were left with no support - and said support was provided to anyone with an ongoing need for as long as necessary through the Recovery Needs Assessment (RNA).
The RNA, which was introduced in 2019, offers periods of support to act as a bridge to transition victims into other services. But Ms Gleich said the provision was only ‘short-term’ and did not give victims the level of certainty they need.
Without secure immigration status, non-UK victims are not eligible for mainstream services - and being formally recognised as a victim does not entitle people to remain in the country.
The number of confirmed victims granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK ‘remains very low’, according to the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC), Dame Sara Thornton - just 70 in 2019, compared with 123 in 2015.
CARE and other charities are backing Lord McColl of Dulwich’s Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, which would give victims in England and Wales a guaranteed right to support, both during the initial period when a decision about their status is being made and for a further minimum of 12 months afterwards. Crucially, it would require leave to remain to be granted to victims for the year-long period.
Ms Gleich said: “Supporting victims to make a long-term recovery is not an optional extra, nor even just the morally right thing to do for people who have been exploited here in our country.
“Support is central to preventing victims being re-exploited and enabling them to give evidence against their traffickers, preventing the exploitation of multitudes of future victims.”
However campaigners were delivered a blow in January when the minister for safeguarding, Victoria Atkins, outlined her opposition to the bill, indicating in a response to a joint letter from charities that the Government favoured an “individually assessed approach” rather than a “blanket approach” to victim support.
Charities said the government was “irreparably damaging victims’ trust”.
Ms Gleich said: “We are calling on the Government to back the Bill to break the cycles of exploitation and help victims to a better future.”