New stealth legislation could see safeguards for human trafficking survivors eroded

Huy was beaten, tortured, and raped by his traffickers - and it was him that ended up in prison

Human trafficking

Stealth legislation is being introduced in a new policy that will make it harder for detained survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking to be released from detention centres.

Since 2019, 2,914 potential victims of trafficking were locked behind the bars of detention centres, when they should have been receiving safe housing, counselling, and medical intervention in response to the trauma they had experienced.

New changes in detention guidance, which haven’t been scrutinised by Parliament, will make matters worse for victims. The Government has used a mechanism called a negative Statutory Instrument, which will allow it to make changes to guidance under the banner of an existing Act of Parliament.

Under the new policy, the trafficked person’s status as a potential victim – even if granted by the Home Office itself – will be downgraded to the label ‘Adults at Risk’ and victims will be required to produce extra evidence to show they are at risk of ‘further harm’ in order to escape detention.

“Modern slavery is a deeply traumatising form of exploitation, which almost without exception features severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse,” Maya Esslemont of After Exploitation said.

“It is unthinkable that such serious changes to the treatment of survivors, already made vulnerable by abuse, have been introduced without any real consultation or Parliamentary debate. This policy will condemn more survivors to time behind bars, even when the Home Office recognises they have a legal right to support.”

Huy was only five-years-old when his father died, leaving him and his family to suffer persecution alone in his Asian country of origin, where his Christian religion was not welcome. His mother saw no other option except to encourage Huy to leave the country and pave the way for the rest of their family to follow him to safety.

She found someone who promised to organise his journey, funded from the money he would make working in Europe. He travelled through China, Russia, France, and finally into the UK in cold, barren containers. Once he arrived in the UK, he was treated well and given accommodation and a job looking after cannabis plants. But it didn’t take long, before Huy was beaten, tortured, and raped by his employers – his traffickers.

When he tried to escape, he was quickly recaptured because he was unsure of his surroundings and couldn’t speak English to ask for help. To crush his hope, they showed him pictures of his family and told him that his mother, wife, and children had all died in a flood.

The police raided the cannabis farm and arrested Huy, along with his traffickers. Huy was too scared and ashamed to disclose his story when the police questioned him about his involvement in the illegal production of Class B controlled drugs.

Without telling him, the police referred Huy into the National Referral Mechanism, a framework for identifying and supporting potential victims of modern slavery. At first, he was not believed. His case was rejected by the Home Office and he received a negative conclusive grounds decision, meaning that Huy was not recognised as having been trafficked into the UK.

The duty solicitor that had been assigned to him suggested Huy plead guilty to the offences brought against him (production of a Class B controlled drug) and when he did, he was sentenced to a little over a year in prison.

Following his time in prison, Huy was transferred to a detention centre. Despite being seen by a doctor who identified him as having suffered torture at the hands of his traffickers, Huy was kept in the prison-like conditions because the Home Office decided his “negative immigration factors” – his drug production – outweighed his vulnerability.

In 2016, the Home Office introduced a Detention Gatekeeper, whose function was to identify individuals too vulnerable for detention – people like Huy – who have endured the trauma of human trafficking and modern slavery. To be locked up in detention centres is disastrous for victims, impacting their long-term mental health and physical wellbeing. Huy’s treatment is not unique.

“This is common practice and in our experience, we know many survivors are not identified quickly enough and some continue to be detained even after they are identified,” Emma Ginn of Medical Justice told us.

“We are concerned that the proposed changes will result in more vulnerable survivors of trafficking being held in detention for longer periods.”

How you can help

The only way to stop these changes is to annul the negative Statutory Instrument using an Early Day Motion, which can be signed by MPs and force debate on the issue. Parliament has 30 days from the 24th of March to act.

To take part, you can Tweet or write to your MP, requesting that they sign the Early Day Motion before 22 April.

Despite the Home Office acknowledging that the changes may result in more survivors being detained, MPs were only given #30DaysToAct, and campaigners are calling on as many people as possible to raise their concerns with their MP before the Parliamentary deadline. Under changes to detention, even recognised survivors like Huy will be at
risk of time behind bars.

Yet, even more concerning are longer-term moves outlined in the Home Secretary’s New Plan for Immigration, which would grant more powers to police, Home Office staff and other first responders to decide which survivors are and aren’t considered for support in the first place.

The Government has outlined an intention to restrict referral ‘criteria’ even further and hopes to introduce additional barriers to identification where survivors have served prison sentences. Due to the relationship between exploitation and criminality, people like Huy will face even more challenges to recovery under the New Plans for Immigration.

Huy eventually accessed independent legal advice and was released from detention but, even under the current system, it took a long time before he was believed.

He described how his time in detention triggered memories of his previous captivity and torture, which he would not have had to endure had he been properly supported in a safe environment following his trafficking experience.

Campaigners argue that safeguards must be strengthened, not eroded, to ensure survivors get the chance at recovery they deserve.

Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance journalist in Wales. You can follower her on Twitter @LaurenMedlicott

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