Trafficking: a human rights abuse, not an immigration offence

The British government's new anti-trafficking strategy is high on rhetoric about immigration crime and border control, and lacks any real commitment to protecting victims of trafficking, says Jenny Moss
Jenny Moss
17 August 2011

I suppose we should not have been surprised by the focus on border control in the British government’s new trafficking strategy, but it’s still disappointing.

On July 19 2011, as parliament went into recess, the Home Office released its new anti-trafficking strategy. Long awaited, we had hoped that amongst other things the strategy would improve access to services for victims; reform the National Referral Mechanism so that it actually functioned as a system to refer people into services rather than an immigration scrutiny process; focus on polices to prevent trafficking; and assist victims in accessing compensation.

The first clues that the strategy would ultimately be a disappointment to NGOs and others working with victims of trafficking, came after a series of mishandled and seemingly tokenistic ‘consultation’ exercises, boycotted by some because of the lack of preparation and meaningful consultation, despaired at by others who attended and wished they hadn’t as the questions asked were superficial and betrayed a worrying lack of understanding of the issues.

At Kalayaan we were not surprised when the strategy came out with high rhetoric about immigration crime and border control, and lacked any real commitment to protecting victims of trafficking and human rights abuses. Just over a month before the strategy was released, the Government proposed to remove the most basic protections against trafficking from migrant domestic workers; the right to change employer and to be recognised as a worker with rights under employment legislation. I’ve written about these Government proposals and why they will lead to an increase in trafficking in a previous article on openDemocracy. These proposals betray the fact that the Government is less concerned with policies that have been hailed by parliamentarians to be effective in preventing trafficking, such as the domestic worker visa protections, and more concerned with being seen to be tough on so called immigration crime.

This strategy confirms our belief that the Government is incapable of having a sensible conversation with the general public when it comes to anything that even touches on migration. I think the public are quite sensible enough to see that trafficking is about human rights abuses; it is the Government who conflate it with illegal immigration or immigration crime (phrases found throughout the strategy). Some statements in the strategy try to link migration and trafficking in a way that is perplexing: “In response to the existing threat of human trafficking we have already taken steps to strengthen the border...and amendments to the Points Based System ensure the right people are allowed to come to the UK.” I have literally no idea how putting a quota on the number of skilled workers coming to the UK, or increasing the income threshold for highly skilled workers, has anything to do with trafficking.

There is also a kind of dark comedy in the idea that “our response at the border will also focus on groups who may not be known to UK authorities, but fit a trafficker or vulnerable migrant profile”. People who traffic for domestic servitude generally come from the most respectable parts of society: diplomats, doctors, leading HIV scientists... plan in some extra time at the UK border - they mean you!

Concentrating on trafficking as an immigration problem has led to a situation where trafficking victims are treated on a bad day as immigration offenders, and on a good day as potential witnesses. Their status as human beings and their needs as individuals are considered later if they are ‘identified’, and then only in the most narrow terms. This is no way to encourage people to come forward to the authorities, and if they don’t come forward, ‘disrupting the networks’ is not going to get any easier.

Steve Chalke, founder of the charity Stop the Traffik and UN.GIFT, Special Advisor on Community Action against Human Trafficking, sums up the feeling well, saying in an anti-slavery press release: “The government’s immigration-dominated focus on addressing the symptoms and not the causes of the trade in human beings will do little to stem the tide. It could also increase the vulnerability of the men, women, and children who are trafficked into the UK and exploited, by concentrating more on their immigration status than their position as victims of a horrible crime. Human trafficking is a human rights abuse, not an immigration offence…”

Chalke's statement also touches on the fact that the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) concentrates more on people’s immigration status, than on their needs as a victim of human rights violations. We’d hoped that the new strategy would be a chance for the government to address this, but it seems there just isn’t the political will. One of the biggest problems identified by NGOs is that the National Referral Mechanism is actually nothing to do with referrals into services. A referral into the NRM does not for example guarantee accommodation, or a caseworker to ensure that you get legal advice or counselling. The NRM is primarily an immigration scrutiny tool, and has been used to glean information from victims of trafficking as early as possible in the process, often before they are ready to talk openly about what has happened. This information is later used to undermine any immigration claims the victim might have.

There could still be hope though. The government has called a meeting of NGOs in September to discuss the trafficking strategy. If there is the political will to be flexible, then there may be room for everyone to have a closer look at the strategy and try and pull out some of the more sensible ideas ,whilst carefully side stepping some of the worst anti-migrant rhetoric. For instance, the statement that “we must tackle the demand for inexpensive, unprotected and often illegal labour” although on the surface too general to be useful, and unhelpfully focused on illegality rather than the structures that facilitate human rights abuses, could be turned into something more positive if for instance the Government look at providing affordable care for children, and a workforce who can care for elderly people in their own homes. Interventions to solve those issues might reduce the profitability of trafficking individuals and enslaving them in this work. A review of the legislation on prosecuting traffickers would also be helpful given there have still been no successful prosecutions of trafficking an adult for domestic servitude since the Act that criminalised this was introduced in 2004.

For Kalayaan though, there is one issue that is at the forefront of tackling trafficking - and that is giving workers proper protections in law. Trying to ‘weed out’ bad employment relationships at the border or in the visa application process won’t work for very many reasons. For instance, most domestic workers are brought to the UK from their employer’s country not their own. If they were to denounce their employer at a British Embassy interview they would be left stranded; homeless, jobless and in breach of their visas, at the mercy of authorities who may not have a great deal of respect for human rights.

If workers are properly protected, and have the option to leave their employment without jeopardising their families security and livelihood, this not only removes some of the power that traffickers rely on, but also gives workers an escape route if things go wrong. Migrant domestic workers for the most part don’t want to be rescued, they just want to move on and find fair terms and conditions of work. For instance, Kalayaan figures show that of 157 individuals we identified as having been trafficked over a given period, 102 of these chose not to be referred into the NRM. For 68 of those individuals the reason they chose not to be referred was that they either wanted, or already had, a new job, and simply wanted to move on and support their families. At the moment, their visa allows them to do just that without any reliance on the state. The Government proposals to bring domestic workers on a visit visa that ties them to their employer with no working rights will facilitate trafficking. It is simply absurd that on the one hand, with the launch of the new strategy, Government claims to be tackling trafficking and protecting victims, whilst on the other hand it proposes to remove the domestic worker visa protections, that work well to do exactly that.


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