New laws coming into effect today will target victims of modern slavery

Suella Braverman is changing modern slavery laws which will criminalise victims, especially those of trafficking
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New measures to accelerate the deportation of ‘foreign criminals’, enacted by the Tories through the Nationality and Borders Act, begin on Monday 30 January. Included in Suella Braverman’s legislation are laws clamping down on some people who have claimed protection under UK law as victims of modern slavery – including victims of trafficking:

‘Criminalising victims’ of modern slavery

The measures taking effect under Section 5 of the Nationality and Borders Act mean that Home Office caseworkers can now demand evidence of modern slavery, rather than taking a victim’s word. That could include evidence from a charity worker or police officer who has helped rescue the victim.

Rights groups have criticised the changes for undermining protections for genuine victims. Anti-Slavery International described the legislation as “dangerous and regressive” but singled out sections related to modern slavery as of “particular concern”:

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Survivors of modern slavery could be denied access to the support that will enable them to access safety and recover and rebuild due to an unreasonable evidence burden.

The Bill introduces cruel ‘trauma deadlines’ by putting a time limit on when survivors must disclose their experiences, after which they are assumed to be lying and their credibility is damaged.

The Bill would therefore block access to support and criminalise victims and survivors who have criminal records, despite 49% of potential trafficking victims last year being forced to commit crimes.

Anti-Slavery International criticised the act for conflating modern slavery with immigration issues, with enforcement priority given to the latter. As a result, the organisation said this will harm victims of modern slavery. Actors throughout the anti-modern slavery sector are “unified” in this belief, it said.

Offending doesn’t displace the right to safety

Home secretary Braverman said in a statement that it’s “totally unfair” that alleged abuses of the modern slavery system left “genuine victims… waiting longer to receive the protections they need”. As a result, Braverman said the legislation coming into force on 30 January will:

mean if you’ve committed an offence, [the government has] the power to refuse your protections and kick you out of our country

This includes offences committed outside of the UK. The government cited a fringe case of one convicted rapist who appealed against a decision by the Home Office to expel him from the UK by claiming he was a victim of criminal gangs engaged in human trafficking.

The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner called this part of the bill out when it was progressing through parliament. Dame Sara Thornton wrote in February 2022 that:

We know that many victims of trafficking will have committed criminal offences – some will have done so under duress and others will have been specifically targeted owing to their offending history. Historic, minor offending does not amount to circumstances where a disqualification from the duty to protect and support victims may be justified.

Nonetheless, the bill passed through parliament without amendment.

Low figures for false claims

Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) reported in November that Albanian crime groups in particular were manipulating the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) which is being reformed under the new act. NCA’s report said crime groups coached Albanian migrants to claim they’re modern slavery victims and apply to the NRM if they get caught working in cannabis farms or other criminal enterprises.

However, the number of false claims made through the NRM appears low. Unseen UK is a charity supporting trafficking and modern slavery victims. It said in October that figures for 2021 and 2022 showed:

the vast majority of people claiming to be victims of modern slavery are found to be genuine – 91% in 2021 and currently 97% in 2022. And that is after the claimants have been investigated by the Home Office itself. 

That means only 3% of claims [in 2022] were refused – and this doesn’t necessarily mean they were abusing the system.

Moreover, as openDemocracy reported in October 2022, the government has refused to release figures on the number of ‘serious’ criminals “passing through the NRM”. With such low rates of false claims, and with mechanisms already in place to handle them, the new law is taking a sledgehammer to a drawing pin. It will inevitably – and cruelly – affect some of the most vulnerable people in this country.

Featured image via Guardian News/YouTube

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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