The greatest human rights issue of our time
Just over two months ago, on 31 July, the Prime Minister made a welcome announcement that her Government will ‘lead the way in defeating modern slavery’ and stated that that it is one of the greatest human rights concerns of our time.
Understandably, less than three months on moves to action this are only just beginning. Yet on the 14th of September, just 45 days after the announcement, a person identified as trafficked on the day of the Prime Minister’s speech would have been told that the statutory support they had been given was over and they would need to move out.
Yet this country spends millions each year to provide housing and support to victims of modern day slavery during a so-called 45 day “National Referral Mechanism (NRM) recovery and reflection” period – during which the Home Office makes a decision on whether a person has been trafficked or not.
But after that decision, Home Office support ends.
Why spend these millions trying to find victims, and then at minimum a further £4 million per annum supporting these individuals, only to abandon them back into a place of vulnerability, with all the risks that led to them being trafficked in the first place?
Charities and even council staff working with victims say after the NRM they usually lose all contact with the victim– usually vulnerable individuals, often with no family, friends, or language skills, who disappear into the ether. The truth is we have no idea what happens to victims of trafficking on ‘day 46’ or when this support ends.
Dropping victims like flies
One of the rare NGOs who provided long-term support for female victims was the Poppy Project at Eaves Housing. However when the Poppy Project suddenly closed down this year, victims of human trafficking and their children were left without support – and in some cases housing – within two weeks.
The suddenness with which support was terminated – in this case due to Eaves’ insolvency – is not dissimilar to the way the funding for victims to stay in a safe house is suddenly halted after a decision is made under the Government’s NRM system, whereby safe houses are given 14 days to move on victims after they have been formally recognised as a victim of trafficking, and a mere 48 hours for those who are not.
“Treated worse than an animal”
We decided to put together a report, Day 46, which tracked the lives of some of the survivors Poppy worked with, and have gathered evidence of the challenges they face.
Of 73 potential interviewees that Poppy had been supporting, 18 were completely unaccounted for. Many had completely disappeared.
One woman had not attended her Home Office interview and seemed to be missing as she was uncontactable. In anotherominouscase, a man answered the personal mobile of one of the survivors. He claimed it was the wrong number.
In spite of being victims of terrible ordeals, and the majority having been formally identified as having been trafficked, survivors usually have no entitlement to public accommodation.
Survivors we spoke to who had found accommodation, had been given a single room in a shared house, seemingly regardless of how many children there were. In three of the four cases, families of four were all living together in one room with no area for children to play. Vulnerable women were housed with unknown men, or living with random acquaintances
One survivor told us in the report that, “I’ve been treated worse than an animal. I was given a positive trafficking decision and then not offered accommodation, even animals get shelter.”
Another woman who had just had a baby was moved 4 times in the first 4 months after giving birth, living in various hostels with no cooking facilities.
As well as this type of trauma, many victims of trafficking, including ones spoken to for this report, have severe health problems caused by the exploitation and abuse they suffered, such as HIV, TB and even scurvy.
But it is clear from interviews that victims feel betrayed by a system which suddenly offered them hope and safety, but which left them ultimately alone and vulnerable to the same abuse they had experienced before.
Many stakeholders working in anti-trafficking NGOs say they are loathe to encourage a victim to engage with the NRM when the Government offers so little and may result in a survivor being shortly sent home. This is problematic as many victims may have huge debts they can only pay off in a Western country, or may have abusive family or circles back home waiting to re-exploit them.
Even if they are recognised as trafficked - and NGOs and councils say they see clearly genuine cases regularly not being recognised or believed by the NRM officials and receive a ‘negative decision’ – they do not receive automatic leave to remain.
But even if they do receive leave to remain, this process can take months. Yet a survivor recognised as trafficked has two weeks to leave a safe house. What happens in the interim? Without a admittance to remain, a National Insurance number and access to benefits, victims have had to beg for food or shelter.
The Home Office presumes that local authorities should cover support once victims leave safe houses. However, local authorities aren’t aware of this and don’t have additional funding to support these high-risk and vulnerable people.
The annual US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which examines every country’s response to human trafficking found the nature of support in the UK deeply problematic, noting that the “government did not provide sufficient care for victims following the 45-day reflection period. NGOs reported cases of victims returning to prostitution or being re-trafficked due to lack of long-term support.”
The instability caused by constantly moving accommodation was one of the most pressing issues raised. And the fear of ending up destitute – despite having been formally recognised as a vulnerable victim of trafficking – was a real one.
Therefore we must ensure survivors of trafficking are prioritised by both asylum processes and the local council for suitable accommodation. This would simply continue procedures already in place. There is currently a concession within the asylum application process allowing those who are receiving treatment for torture to remain accommodated in London. Meanwhile Local Authority housing accepts that victims of domesticviolence can be prioritised for housing. Both of these ‘concessions’ should be extended to victims of trafficking.
A provision ofadvice and support should also be made available to adult survivors of modern slavery beyond the duration of the ‘recovery and reflection period’ as is the case in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. This postcode lottery where England is theshort straw is arbitrary and perverse.
It is also strange that recognition as a refugee through the asylum system grants an initial five years of leave to remain in the UK, followed by the opportunity to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain. Yet recognition of a victim of trafficking through the NRM, by contrast, carries no right to remain for even a month.
This could be resolved by positive recognition of a victim of trafficking resulting in an automatic grant of a Residence Permit, with at least one year’s leave to remain in the UK. This would give them time to get compensation from their employer, receive psychological and medical support for physical and mental trauma caused by events, and place them in a position of health so that if they return to their country, they can do so empowered, without the risks that led them being traffickedin the first place.
The recommendationsin our report mirror what is broadlyalready recommended in the Home Office’s own ‘Review of the National Referral Mechanism for victims of human trafficking’.
For if we are going to pour resources into finding victims and support them for a short period while we verify if they were trafficked for national crime data, we must be prepared to properly support them to safely continue their lives. Otherwise we are simply rescuing victims, only to effectively return them into traffickers’ hands, after briefly giving them a glimmer of hope.
Tamara Barnett is project leader at the Human Trafficking Foundation