The Home Office is making conditions for victims of modern slavery and human trafficking harsher

'The Home Office's new plan for immigration, threatens a more hostile environment for asylum seekers.'

Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance writer based in Wales reporting on human rights issues.

Priti Patel stated earlier this year that ‘the UK has led the world in protecting the victims of modern slavery and we will continue to support those who have suffered intolerable abuse at the hands of criminals and traffickers so they can rebuild their lives.’

However, as the Home Office reveals its new plan for immigration, which threatens a more hostile environment for asylum seekers, charities are questioning whether Priti Patel should continue to make this claim. 

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is the framework used by the Home Office to identify potential victims of modern slavery and ensure they receive appropriate support. For a victim of human trafficking to receive housing, medical support, financial assistance, and psychological help, they must be recognized within the NRM, which includes a three-stage decision-making process: Referral into the system, Reasonable Grounds decision, and Conclusive Grounds decision. In response to the doubling numbers of people referred into the NRM from 2017-2020, the Home Office is attempting to make it more difficult to abuse the NRM by toughening up the decision making process. 

Recent data from a Freedom of Information request, secured by After Exploitation, found 78 percent of Conclusive Grounds (the final stage in the decision making process) rejections within the National Referral Mechanism given last year were later found to be wrongly rejected, and subsequently replaced with positive decisions, affirming that the individual had indeed been a victim of modern slavery or human trafficking. 

The Referral Process

‘First Responders’, such as the police, Home Office, or specified charities, are currently responsible for making a referral to put someone into the NRM, where specified people will decide whether or not the potential victim meets the threshold for modern slavery. 

‘Many survivors slip through the net under the current system before they’re passed onto the NRM,’ says Maya Esslemont from After Exploitation. ‘Last year, 2,178 suspected survivors were spotted by First Responders but never passed on for support. In part, this is because agencies cannot assure survivors that their details will not be passed to immigration enforcement, and there is no guaranteed legal advocacy or translation support when survivors are spotted by authorities.’

In 2017, there were promises made by the Government to introduce pre-referral support called ‘Places of Safety’, to establish trust so that survivors would consent to engage with support. The scheme never materialised. 

In upcoming changes made to the referral process, first responders will be able to reject cases using a sort of credibility index before survivors are even able to make their case or receive formal support.  

‘This is incredibly concerning’, Esslemont says. ‘Survivors are not offered any guaranteed legal advocacy or protection against deportation or detention, may be nervous about engaging with the process for identification (the NRM). They will also need time to recover before being able to provide full details of their trauma relevant to the decision-making process.’

The Reasonable Grounds Stage

In this first decision making stage, the Home Office decides if a person should be recognised as a potential victim. With a positive Reasonable Ground decision, a survivor could access safe housing, counselling, financial assistance, and protection from deportation. 

After Exploitation’s Freedom of Request found that last year, 81 percent of negative Reasonable Grounds decisions turned out to be positive when challenged, resulting in the delay of necessary support. 

The Reasonable Grounds stage is due to become even tougher under the New Plan for Immigration, which provides a strengthened decision making process to properly assess if the system is being misused. It is suspected to put victims under even higher levels of scrutiny. 

‘Anti-Slavery International oppose any proposal to increase the Reasonable Grounds test applied in practice as proposed in the Home Office’s New Plan for Immigration,’ says Kate Roberts of Anti- Slavery International. ‘Instead, given that referrals can only be made by a designated First Responder and, considering the difficulties for someone to evidence their exploitation, particularly before receiving support, all negative decisions, including at the first stage, should be flagged for reconsideration to ensure victims of trafficking don’t slip between the gaps into re-exploitation.’

The Conclusive Grounds Decision

If a positive Conclusive Grounds decision is made, a survivor would be automatically considered for leave to remain in the UK and given support to protect them from further exploitation and deportation. It was at this stage that After Exploitation’s Freedom of Request found that 75 percent of negative Conclusive Grounds decisions were found to be positive following an appeal. That is 103 survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking that had delayed support following a period of exploitation. 

#SCRAPTHEPLAN

To counter the proposed changes that will make a more hostile environment for survivors to receive urgent support, the following recommendations have been suggested by After Exploitation: 

  • Halt plans to allow support to be denied to survivors before referral.
  • Cancel damaging changes to the National Referral Mechanism, including the proposed restrictions on who is recognized as a ‘potential victim’ at the Reasonable Grounds stage.
  • Improve identification by rolling out advocacy via the promised ‘Places of Safety’ scheme to increase referrals.
  • Commit to merit-based trafficking and asylum decision-making, with the former function removed from the Home Office’s jurisdiction, in order to guard against perverse incentive to deport or detain victims.
  • Stop enacting policies with the intent of punishing asylum seekers, all of which will negatively impact non-UK survivors’ ability to disclose experiences of trafficking. 

‘It is vital that the Government scraps the plan to make an already hostile trafficking process even tougher,’ Esslemont says. ‘The New Plan for Immigration must be stopped, and a commitment to pre-referral support must be made so that suspected victims can access advocacy throughout the whole decision-making process.’

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