Tough new rules to crackdown on ‘abuse’ of modern slavery laws by criminals

UN experts have expressed alarm at the government’s new reforms, claiming it is undermining the modern slavery system, removing support and protections for victims and survivors.

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Tough new rules will now make it harder for migrants convicted of serious offences to claim to be victims of modern slavery.

Under plans announced by the Home Secretary on Monday (30 January) the government will be able to withhold protections from anyone sentenced to 12 months or more, or convicted of serious offences such as murder or terrorism.

The measures are part of a wider crackdown on illegal migrants and form part of the Nationality and Borders Act.

It comes after the government has been under pressure from Tory backbenchers in recent months to tackle small boat crossings at the Channel.

There have been 991 migrants crossing the Channel to the UK so far this year, according to Ministry of Defence figures.

‘We must stop people exploiting our immigration laws’

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she is “personally determined to crack down on those abusing the generosity of the British public and taking our country for a ride.”

She said: “We must stop people exploiting our immigration and asylum laws. It is totally unfair that genuine victims of modern slavery may be left waiting longer to receive the protections they need due to the flagrant abuse of the system.

“The changes coming into force will mean if you’ve committed an offence, we have the power to refuse your protections and kick you out of our country.”

Previously, if a foreign national offender claimed to be a victim of modern slavery, any action to remove them would be paused while their claim was considered.

But from Monday, the government will be able to prevent certain foreign criminals and anyone who has made false claims from accessing the protections provided by the National Referral Mechanism.

The Home Office said that guidance for case workers will also be updated, so that when reviewing a claim there should be objective evidence of modern slavery rather than “mere suspicion”.

The government will also be able to withdraw access to the initial and any wider protections if someone has been found to have made a “bad faith” claim to be a victim of modern slavery or human trafficking.

The Home Office said that could apply where there is enough evidence to conclude that an individual has falsely claimed to be a victim of modern slavery. For example, if a story about their journey to the UK does not match immigration records.

The Modern Slavery Act was introduced by former Prime Minister Theresa May during her time as Home Secretary to protect vulnerable people from exploitation, domestic servitude or being trafficked for sex.

The government has long been warned that the current system is being abused, allowing offenders to remain in the UK.

May is among those warning that a tightening of rules around modern slavery could create extra problems and undermine protections for victims.

‘The government has decided to demonise victims’

UN experts have expressed alarm at the government’s new reforms, claiming it is undermining the modern slavery system, removing support and protections for victims and survivors - and uses hostile and inflammatory language to attack their credibility.

The experts said they have seen repeated unevidenced claims by government officials about the alleged “misuse” of the modern slavery identification and protection systems as their own experiences working with victims and surviors bear no relation to the government’s own findings.

They are calling on the government to prioritise effective support for victims and survivors of trafficking and modern slavery, and end the hostile narrative.

UN experts said: “We are alarmed by the rise in unsubstantiated claims by public officials and government departments regarding persons seeking protection under the Modern Slavery Act and the National Referral Mechanism in the past days and weeks. Misleading statements that exaggerate the level of fraud and abuse in the system to protect victims of trafficking and slavery, suggest that survivors of these practices are migrants in an irregular situation or criminals rather than vulnerable victims of gross human rights violations and that their legal representatives are cynical opportunists rather than human rights defenders.

“This has a chilling effect on those willing to come forward as victims and those willing to provide legal representation to victims, impeding efforts to identify and protect victims and persons at risk of trafficking and hold perpetrators accountable. Focus instead on strengthening measures to protect these vulnerable populations.”

Peter Wieltschnig, Policy & Networks Officer at Focus on Labour Exploitation said: “The UK government is failing victims and survivors of trafficking and modern slavery. Rather than taking much needed steps to enable victims to access identification, protection and support systems, the Government has decided to demonise victims and narrow access to vital support and protections.

“We call on the government to focus on preventing modern slavery through an evidence-based and person-centred approach which keeps people safe through giving them access to rights and options.”

Andrew Wallis, CEO of Unseen, a UK-based anti-slavery charity, told NationalWorld: “Unseen along with other anti-slavery charities have repeatedly asked the Home Office to show us evidence that the system is awash with fake modern slavery claims. What we are seeing is vulnerable people suffering severe trauma because they are being exploited or enslaved, right here in the UK. Surely that’s where the focus should be?

“To put out spurious claims without facts or context is verging on irresponsible. The result is we’re treating vulnerable people as criminals when they most need our help, and distracting attention from the real criminals behind slavery and trafficking.”

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