Thousands of potential trafficking victims ‘not given vital support’

Less than fifth of those identified by some agencies as probable modern slavery victims are referred for legal and housing advice – study

Thousands of people identified as potential victims of trafficking in the UK have not been referred for support despite government pledges to help them, according to a new study.

Many victims of trafficking are hidden and unable to access support because they are under the control of those who are exploiting them. But victims who do come into contact with the authorities such as the police, Home Office or Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) which investigates reports of worker exploitation and human trafficking, should be referred for safe housing and legal advice.

A freedom of information response obtained by After Exploitation, a data mapping project on victims of modern slavery, found that some organisations are referring less than 20% of potential victims for support.

In 2018, 1,551 people (18% of the total identified as potential trafficking victims) were not referred for support. In a four-month period in 2019, 830 out of 4,355 potential victims identified (19%) were not referred.

Within these statistics there are some marked differences. Between June and September last year, while local authorities referred 91% of potential victims of trafficking for support, the GLLA only referred 19% despite recognising the other 81% as potential victims of trafficking. The UK Border Force referred 51% of potential trafficking victims for support during this period.

Maya Esslemont, the director of After Exploitation, said: “Worryingly, victims are less likely to be referred for vital support, such as safe housing, counselling or legal representation, depending on the first responder they come into contact with. Currently it is impossible to guarantee that potential victims are knowingly accepting or rejecting help, as not all are provided with legal representation, a translator or safe spaces at their most vulnerable.”

The Home Office pointed out that its data does not compare like with like – only adults and not children are logged as potential victims of trafficking on a form known as MS1 (Modern Slavery 1). However, the data on those who are referred for support includes both adults and children. While no breakdown between adults and children has been provided by the Home Office, this suggests that the number of adults not referred for trafficking support is even higher than Home Office figures suggest.

The GLLA chief executive Michael Rich said: “A significant proportion of potential victims we identify do not wish to enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). It is a voluntary framework which we cannot force victims to accept.

“However, this does not stop us from removing vulnerable workers from any exploitative surroundings and appointing a lead officer for victim support in each case, providing potential victims with a single point of contact and ensuring they have access to the support that they need. The number of potential victims of exploitation we identified doubled from 2018-19 to 2019-20, rising to more than 15,000, and we are using our police-style powers to bring more offenders to justice.”

The study comes as a victim of trafficking has been given the green light by a high court judge to challenge the Home Office for not allowing her to take up a job as a cleaner.

If her case succeeds, thousands of asylum seekers currently barred from employment could be given the right to work. The vast majority of asylum seekers cannot work even if the Home Office takes years to make a decision on their case.

The woman, who is 35 and from Kosovo, was trafficked to the UK in December 2017. Her trafficker forced her to cook and clean for Romanians who worked at his car wash. She was not given enough to eat, was forced to sleep on the floor and was regularly raped and beaten by her trafficker.

When she managed to escape on 9 March 2018, police suspected her to be a victim of trafficking. However, when police referred the case to the Home Office, officials locked her up in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire for almost a month. She claimed asylum and more than two years later is still waiting for a decision on her case from the Home Office.

In theory asylum seekers can apply to work if the Home Office has delayed for a year or more in making a decision on their case. However, they are only allowed to work if they are qualified in one of the occupations on the Home Office’s shortage list. These are mostly highly specialised professional jobs ranging from particular kinds of scientists and engineers to pipe welders, certain orchestra musicians and ballet dancers.

The trafficked woman bringing the case was granted the right to work by the Home Office in May 2019 but only in one of the shortage occupations. She is not qualified to do any of the jobs on the list but has secured an employment offer working as a cleaner for a charity who is providing support for her.

Sulaiha Ali of Duncan Lewis solicitors, representing the trafficked woman, said: “This is an extremely important challenge that will impact thousands of asylum seekers who continue to experience lengthy delays from the Home Office in the determination of their claims.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay and that those who need protection are granted it as soon as possible, so they can start to integrate and rebuild their lives.”


Diane Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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