openDemocracyUK: Analysis

UK Nationality and Borders Bill will slash support for modern slavery victims

Part 5 of the bill will make it even harder for survivors to get help. Peers and MPs must take the chance to rip it up

Maya Esslemont
9 February 2022, 3.42pm
Peers are currently discussing the UK’s proposed Nationality and Borders Bill
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Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK’s Nationality and Borders Bill is working its way through the House of Lords, with peers discussing the restrictions it would introduce on support for victims of modern slavery. But despite the seismic impact it would have, there have been relatively few column inches dedicated to Part 5 of the bill, which would make it even harder for survivors to navigate systems of identification and support.

The proposed restrictions come at a time when survivors already face a support lottery. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people are held in modern slavery in the UK at any given moment, yet barely a tenth (10,613) of that number was referred to the Home Office by ‘first responder’ organisations – including the police and government agencies – as potential victims in 2020.

Worryingly, even when victims are finally recognised as ‘survivors’ by the UK state, they are not guaranteed support. The UK’s Annual Report on Modern Slavery highlights that requests for support, such as safe housing or counselling, are partially or fully rejected in eight out of ten cases. It is little wonder so few survivors feel safe seeking help.

What’s more, according to information provided to us by the Home Office, 78% of rejections for trafficking claims are overturned at appeal. It is far more common for those in desperate need of urgent trafficking entitlements (including shelter or financial aid) to be wronged than it is for claimants to ‘abuse’ the system. It is unsurprising that so few survivors of slavery come forward when those who do are so inconsistently granted protections.

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Part 5 of the Nationality and Borders Bill would threaten access to support even further, through a cluster of exemptions and changes to the referral process survivors face. These are the provisions we find most alarming.

‘Deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ survivors

Firstly, the system introduces exemptions that would wipe out support for huge numbers of survivors in the UK.

Under Clause 62, a new ‘public order’ exemption would ban survivors from support if they have been given a sentence of 12 months or more. This must be challenged. The Home Office’s own data shows that half of all survivors could be at risk of losing support – in 2020, 49% of exploitation cases saw potential victims forced to commit crime as a result of their exploitation.

Even more worrying is the precedent this sets. Survivors of crime are survivors of crime, regardless of what they have done. A two-tier system, differentiating between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ survivors, would rule thousands out of support.

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No right to appeal

Part 5 would also decimate appeal rights for survivors. Clauses 60 and 61 remove the right to ‘further assistance’ if an exploited person has already been through the system.

This move needlessly punishes those who have been re-trafficked or even exploited again by different people, likely as a result of state failure to protect such survivors in the first place.

Chipping away at entitlements

Clauses 63 and 67 of the bill allow the government to provide ‘case-by-case’ support only when it deems support is ‘necessary’ for recovery.

Given the high rate of rejection for support requests, we already know that exploited people suffer when the government hands itself sweeping powers to offer or waive rights on a case-by-case basis.

Worryingly, withdrawal from the EU Trafficking Directive under Clause 67 would also allow the government to avoid existing levels of accountability, under international law, should it wish to further roll back survivor entitlements.

Trauma deadlines

Just as concerning is the ‘trauma deadline’ created under Clauses 57 and 58 in Part 5.

Under these moves, survivors could see their entitlements cut for not sharing details of their abuse quickly enough. Survivors are frequently psychologically, physically or sexually abused by traffickers as a means of maintaining control. For this reason, the traumatic nature of both exploitation and ill-treatment at the hands of exploiters can result in severely delayed disclosure by victims.

A two-tier system, differentiating between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ survivors, would rule thousands out of support

An even ‘stricter’ system

Lastly, survivors will be expected to provide more evidence to Home Office staff deciding on their claim, earlier in their recovery journey, before they have even had access to a translator, safe housing, or support.

In the UK, the only way to secure access to human trafficking or modern slavery-related support is through a Home Office-run process called the ‘National Referral Mechanism’. The first stage in the mechanism is where urgent help is allocated, such as safe housing. Yet, under Clause 59 of Part 5, a survivor can access help only if the Home Office recognises that they ‘are’ rather than ‘may be’ a victim.

Taking action

Every clause in Part 5 achieves the same outcome: to deter survivors of modern slavery from feeling safe asking for help. We must work together with peers and MPs to scrap Part 5 entirely while there is still a window to stop this damaging step backwards.

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