Modern slavery is a violation of human rights, affecting millions of men, women and children across the world and in the UK. People who are vulnerable due to circumstances of poverty, instability or forced migration are taken advantage of and exploited in situations of unfree labour, trafficking and abuse. Women and girls fleeing war are particularly at risk and I am concerned about the possibility of trafficking for migrants as the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine unfolds.
Given all of this, you might expect that the UK government and the Home Office were doing all they could to help victims of modern slavery in Britain. You would be wrong.
Confirmed victims of human trafficking have no automatic right to stay in the UK. Despite this, Home Office guidance states that they will be automatically considered for temporary leave to remain if they do not already have this. Guidance also makes clear that this is appropriate in exceptional circumstances or for compassionate reasons. However, the number of victims of trafficking granted temporary leave remains extremely low – thanks to a freedom of information request from the children’s rights charity Ecpat, we know just 8% of applications were granted in 2021.
One aspect of the government’s nationality and borders bill, which is now making its way through the House of Lords, seeks to codify in law the circumstances in which temporary leave to remain will be granted to assist the person in their recovery, to enable them to seek compensation or to cooperate with the police. Last week, Lord McColl tabled an amendment to make this provision more generous, providing at least 12 months’ support for confirmed victims of modern slavery, which was supported by peers.
I hope the government gives this amendment serious consideration, but there is also more work to be done in terms of how the Home Office makes its decisions – an area that concerns me. Take the case of Jane (not her real name), who left Eritrea in the early 2000s with the help of an agent. She travelled with her employer to the UK and other countries. During this time she was abused, controlled, threatened and not paid. She was eventually confirmed to be a victim of trafficking and recognised as being particularly vulnerable. Despite this, temporary leave to remain was not judged necessary to protect and assist in her recovery.
I have not seen all the paperwork so cannot comment on whether this decision was right, but I am in a position to comment about the way the decision was made. This is because I’ve seen her rejection letter.
Leaving aside that it referred to Jane as a male throughout the correspondence, the letter made use of a US government report on trafficking to justify its decision. The US Department of State Trafficking in Persons report ranks governments’ efforts every year to combat trafficking. The report on Eritrea is pretty damning and places the country in tier 3, the lowest, implying that the government does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. This includes not having adequate victim protection, with no efforts to identify or protect victims reported since 2015. The assessment reports that Eritrea does not provide any services directly to victims and it references the suggestion from an international organisation that returning asylum seekers had a well-founded fear of persecution.
However in the Home Office’s hands, the very few positive aspects of the assessment, such as the establishment of a committee, have been cherrypicked and used as evidence that the authorities in Eritrea are willing and able to provide assistance.
While the Home Office decision-maker relied on the assessment of the US, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office determined Eritrea to be one of 31 human rights priority countries in a ministerial statement from November 2021. This stated that Eritrea had made no improvements in the human rights situation during the first half of 2021 and that arbitrary detentions, indefinite national service and restrictions on freedom of expression all continued. Should the Home Office be flying victims of human trafficking back to such a country?
Ministers have repeatedly provided assurances that decisions on granting leave to remain for survivors of trafficking will be made on a case-by-case basis. But it is hard to have confidence in the system when confronted with this quality of decision making. Lord McColl’s amendment would ensure a more generous approach to vulnerable and traumatised victims of the most serious crimes. Seriously considering it would be the least the government could do.
Dame Sara Thornton is the government’s independent anti-slavery commissioner