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Trafficking Victims Left Destitute By Home Office Policy

As residents around the world have been collectively distracted by the COVID-19 outbreak, the UK government has ploughed ahead with its decade-long aim to create a hostile environment for those hoping to find refuge here. Among several key changes that have been hurriedly drafted into law behind the scenes, there is one exceptionally worrying legislation that pushes thousands of victims of modern slavery into destitution and at a heightened risk of exploitation.

On July 1st, new legislation came into effect which cuts off vital financial support for potential victims of trafficking whilst they wait for the results of their assessment. Under UK law, if a first responder (the police, social care provider, or a charity) suspects a person to be a victim of trafficking, they can refer them to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which is a protective platform and processing unit. Once a referral has taken place, an initial decision is made on whether or not there are 'reasonable grounds' to suspect the referee has been trafficked. If it is determined that they are, they are granted 45 days 'rest and recovery' of leave to remain in the UK. During this time, the NRM provides the victim with temporary accommodation, food and a small living allowance so that they can support themselves. This living allowance goes towards things like food supplements, phone tariffs, clothing, feminine hygiene products, childcare essentials and hotel WiFi costs. On July 1st this living allowance has been cut by the Home Office.

This decision has left some of the world's most vulnerable and traumatised people at risk of further destitution and exploitation.

This decision comes at a time when human trafficking is at the forefront of public consciousness. Across the Atlantic, human trafficking is being talked about more brazenly, as Ghislaine Maxwell's arrest for working alongside Jeffery Epstein to exploit and victimize young women and girls. The survivors, who have since come forward to relay their stories, have shared that they were young, living in vulnerable situations often from low-income and/or migrant backgrounds. As such, many of the victims were seeking to escape from their current situations when they were approached.

This trend is incredibly common when it comes to the traits traffickers look for and use to select and hold their victims. Which is why a vast number of cases referred to the NRM in Britain are asylum seekers. People fleeing persecution, war, and violence in their home countries are vulnerable and so are often targeted and approached by groups of traffickers, who pose as people smugglers promising a safe escape to the UK. Often, perpetrators will groom victims, promising them a better life and a way out - a job or safe accommodation once they reach Britain. In exchange, they ask for the person's identity documents and a fee, before setting up travel to Europe. Once the victim arrives in the UK, they are often without any proof of identity or money and are bound to their perpetrator as a result. It is through this method that they are then forced to work with little or no pay in illegal settings.

Referrals to the NRM reach the thousands every year and are on the rise. While men are primarily forced into labour – often on farms and construction sites – sex trafficking and forced marriage/relationship victims are overwhelmingly female (women and girls made of 93% of victims in 2019). Victims of modern slavery commonly experience sexual abuse and violence, battery, blackmail, threat, and emotional/psychological manipulation during their captivity.

Despite this, the Conservative government is consistently treating the people most in need of their support with hostility. Although the infamous hostile environment policy was denounced in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal, it is clear that hostile attitudes towards migrants are still being given a home in the Cabinet. The lack of compassion for victims of human trafficking is evident in the policies and legislations which continue to be pushed out, despite increased public awareness of the realities of human trafficking. With this new legislation, the government is punishing the victims of trafficking for the crimes of the trafficker.

How trafficking victims and asylum seekers are treated within the UK's immigration system needs to be drastically evaluated. Financial support is crucial and must be reinstated for potential victims during their rest and recovery period. The policies that encourage service-providers and Home Office caseworkers to approach victims with a default of disbelief must be entirely expunged from the law. We need to see a new system that supports and allows hidden and afraid victims to come forward anonymously for their own safety, without risk of losing their immigration rights or status.

By Luna Williams is the political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service.

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