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UK accused of failing trafficking victims in new US government report

Tories urged to let the findings serve as a ‘wake-up call’ over bill that penalises victims forced to commit crimes

Maysa Pritilata
26 July 2022, 8.23am

Campaigners have long criticised the Nationality and Borders Act

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Thomas Krych / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK has been slammed for failing to support victims of trafficking – and in some cases, convicting them – in a new report by the US government.

This year’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, published by the US State Department last week, criticised the UK for penalising trafficking victims who are forced to commit crimes by their exploiters.

It also highlighted the risk that many victims are failing to receive support on the basis of their immigration status.

Maya Esslemont, the director of British NGO After Exploitation, told openDemocracy that the US’s findings “should serve as a serious wake-up call to the next [UK] administration”.

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The report accused the UK of implementing: “Measures which… observers believed would hinder victim identification and protection efforts, particularly among undocumented migrants.”

It continued: “Observers continued to report long-term care and reintegration support for victims were inadequate, and many potential victims continued to face long wait times to enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and begin receiving support.”

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The damning conclusions come 18 months after the UK’s safeguarding minister, Victoria Atkins, rejected the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill. The legislation aimed to provide trafficking victims with safe housing, support and protection from immigration detention for at least one year.

In a letter to Esslemont at the time, Atkins wrote: “The government does not agree that victims should automatically be granted leave to remain for 12 months.”

Now, Esslemont has welcomed the US’s acknowledgement “of the significant barriers to justice and support facing survivors of exploitation in the UK”.

Punishing victims

While the report awarded the UK – along with 29 other countries – the highest-ranking ‘Tier 1’ status for its efforts against human trafficking, it made clear that doing so “does not mean that a country has no human trafficking problem or that it is doing enough to address the crime”.

It went on to make recommendations for major changes to Britain’s current policy, calling on the government to “provide a trafficking-specific long-term alternative for foreign victims at risk if returned to their home country”.

It also urged the UK to “ensure victims are not penalised for unlawful acts, including immigration violations, traffickers compelled them to commit”.

Nearly half of all potential trafficking victims referred to the Home Office in the past year were forced to commit crimes. According to Esslemont, offences could include “marijuana cultivation, county lines drug-running, or even [undocumented or unlawful] immigration”.

But Part 5 of the Nationality and Borders Act, which came into law earlier this year, requires decision-makers to consider a survivor’s offending history when deciding whether to identify them as victims of modern slavery.

Some of the most vulnerable survivors of exploitation are at risk of missing out on vital support

A joint letter, signed by 44 NGOs working to end trafficking, called for Part 5 to allow victims to receive support regardless of whether they have committed an offence. The act was passed in April without the suggested amendment.

Esslemont said the Nationality and Borders Act means it’s “almost impossible to consistently adhere to” the US’s recommendations, adding that the bill would need “significant reform”.

They added: “Some of the most vulnerable survivors of exploitation are at risk of missing out on vital support like counselling and safe housing, or even state recognition of their experiences of trafficking, simply for crimes they were forced to commit.”

The UK has been criticised for its stance on trafficking victims in the past. Last year, the report raised concerns over the immigration detention of trafficking victims.

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