The UK faces losing its role as a world leader at fighting modern slavery if a new bill passes into law, anti-slavery advocates say, and could instead end up locking vulnerable people into exploitation.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak formally unveiled their proposed new Illegal Migration Bill on Tuesday, which would detain, remove and ban asylum seekers from re-entry if they arrived in the UK through illegal means.
The aim was to "stop the boats", referring to small boats used to ferry people across the English Channel, where they could then seek amnesty. Sunak said he planned to implement the Bill as soon as it got through Parliament, and the legislation would apply retrospectively - affecting everyone arriving in the UK illegally from Tuesday.
The Bill has already been criticised by human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International, the Church of Scotland, and even the United Nations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was “profoundly concerned”, as the legislation would extinguish the right to seek refugee protection in the UK for those who arrive irregularly, "no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be".
Now, concerns have been raised about what it will mean for human trafficking victims trying to seek help, who arrive in the UK illegally, but not necessarily of their own volition.
'We’re playing into the hands of traffickers'
From what they understood of the Illegal Migration Bill, experts in the anti-trafficking and anti-slavery sectors believe that even trafficking victims who arrived via irregular means would face detention and possible deportation.
As someone instrumental in bringing about the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, Unseen UK chief executive Andrew Wallis told NationalWorld he found it “deeply depressing”.
“We see the horrific brutality that is meted out on these victims… to deny the support and recognition that is so vital to them, it will damage the UK’s reputation [as leaders on modern slavery] around the globe,” he said.
From working with victims, Mr Wallis said they were often “highly exploited”. Their employers frequently used threats of turning them over to authorities or getting them deported to control them, he said.
If you were someone seeking to exploit victims, the new Bill would have you “rubbing your hands with glee”, he said. “You can now say they’re not going to be believed… they’re not going to have access to the support system”.
“We’re playing into the hands of traffickers,” Mr Wallis added. He slammed the new Bill as driven by ideology but not backed up by facts, and said he resented the ongoing rhetoric from government conflating issues like the small boats crisis with modern slavery, “to make sweeping changes… to suggest these people should be punished”.
The Illegal Migration Bill was problematic right down to its title, he said, as a person could never be illegal, and migration was not a crime. It was discriminatory, aimed at “denying them their rights”.
When the UK’s net migration was considered as a whole, asylum seekers arriving on small boats made up less than 9%, Mr Wallis said, and most of the modern slavery victims they dealt with either came into the country via regular entry or were UK nationals.
“This is a very big sledgehammer to crack a very small problem,” he said.
Mr Wallis said it was only a very small number of the approximately 17,000 victims who had been referred to support services via the National Referral Mechanism who had arrived in the UK by irregular means - about 702. But if the Bill was passed into legislation, those 702 victims would be denied the support and recognition they needed, he said. “You can’t claim asylum, you can’t claim you’re a victim of modern slavery.”
'Dangerous and unworkable in practice'
Kate Roberts, policy head for research and advocacy organisation Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), told NationalWorld that if the Bill passed in its current form, “its effects will be devastating and far-reaching for anyone seeking protection in the UK”.
“The Bill removes access to justice or fair process according to how people arrived in the UK - something which many people have no control over. The prospect of immigration detention will mean that people will be fearful of approaching the authorities for assistance no matter how exploitative or dangerous their circumstances,” she said.
It was clear that anyone who arrived in the UK via an irregular route would not be able to access trafficking protections “no matter what their circumstances”. Ms Roberts echoed Mr Wallis’ view, that it would play into the hands of exploiters, “and risks leaving people trapped in exploitation”.
“The Bill is dangerous and unworkable in practice and will result in the unacceptable suffering of people seeking safety. The Home Secretary has said that the Bill is “more than 50%” likely to break human rights laws. On this basis alone, it should not be taken forward.”
How big an issue is human trafficking for modern slavery in the UK?
In the last three months of 2022, 4,418 potential victims of slavery or trafficking were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).The number referred has fallen from the record high of 4,581 between July and September, but was still the second highest quarterly figure on record.
Immigration Enforcement, the UK Border Force, or UK Visas and Immigration had first identified 2,135 of the cases, and of the 4,418 potential victims total, at least 1,943 had been exploited - or were suspected of having been exploited - as children.
During the last three months of the year, Home Office assessors made 4,548 “reasonable grounds assessments” to determine if it was likely that the person referred was a genuine victim of modern slavery or trafficking. In 85% of cases, they decided they were most likely genuine victims. The Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority was even more likely to determine their cases were genuine victims - at 88%.
Prime Minister grilled on trafficking at PMQs
During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday (8 March), MPs grilled Sunak on what the new bill would mean for trafficking victims who arrived via the Channel on small boats.
SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn asked: “On International Women’s Day, can I ask the Prime Minister to reconfirm that under his proposed new asylum laws women who are sex-trafficked to the UK on a small boat by a criminal gang will not be afforded protection under our modern slavery laws?”
Sunak would not be drawn on a direct answer, and replied: “It’s precisely because we want to target our resources and our compassion on the world’s most vulnerable people that we need to get a grip of this system, make sure that we have control over our borders, make sure our system and resources are not overwhelmed, so that we can help the people most in need.”
He echoed the sentiment when asked about Olympic gold medallist Sir Mo Farah, who last year revealed he had been trafficked to the UK as a child.
Labour MP Imran Hussain asked whether under the new “dystopian, far-right appeasing, anti-refugee Bill”, others who were trafficked to the UK would still face deportation. “Can the Prime Minister therefore clear up whether Sir Mo Farah… would have been removed under this Bill?”
Sunak replied: “It is precisely because we do want to help the world’s most vulnerable people that we’ve got to stop our system being exploited and overwhelmed by illegal migrants who are being trafficked here by criminal gangs.
“There is nothing compassionate, there is nothing fair about supporting that system continuing, and that’s why our new laws are the right way to deal with this.”
If you need help or are worried about someone or something you’ve seen, call the free, 24/7 UK Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline on 08000 121 700.