UK rolling back efforts to tackle modern slavery, charity says

Reclassifying modern slavery as immigration issue and rhetoric of ‘abusing the system’ are among concerns levelled at government

The UK has been accused of “rolling back” moves to tackle modern slavery before a UN review of its human rights record on Thursday.

Anti-Slavery International said that at the time of the last universal periodic review (UPR) in 2017, the UK had recently passed the Modern Slavery Act and was seen by some as an exemplar, but five years later, with the next review imminent, it has regressed.

The review, which examines the human rights situation of every UN member state, takes place every five years. It begins on Monday with the UK’s turn to be scrutinised on Thursday, and Anti-Slavery International anticipates that it will be found wanting.

The charity’s CEO, Jasmine O’Connor, said: “The context is very different now, with the UK government rolling back crucial support on modern slavery, reclassifying modern slavery as an issue of immigration and casting doubt on the validity of trafficking claims.

“As the UN UPR shines a spotlight on the UK, we urge the government to truly listen to the recommendations presented in the universal periodic review and commit to providing meaningful improvements to uphold human rights. During this review, the government must be reminded of its duty to prevent modern slavery and protect those experiencing it.”

Among the concerns raised by Anti-Slavery International are rhetoric around “abuse of the system” and the removal of the modern slavery brief from the minister responsible for safeguarding, instead classifying it as an “illegal immigration and asylum” issue.

The charity says that the Rwanda deportation scheme has failed to provide sufficient safeguards to prevent victims of modern slavery being targeted for relocation and that the Nationality and Borders Act is “dangerous and regressive”.

It says the latter imposes “trauma deadlines”, requiring individuals to disclose that they are a victim at the earliest possible opportunity or risk it counting against them. Additionally, it says that by disqualifying from protection people who have been sentenced to 12 months for a criminal offence, the act could exclude people who have been forced to commit crimes, including immigration offences, as part of their trafficking experience.

Since the last universal periodic review, UN special rapporteurs have raised concerns related to the trafficking and modern slavery landscape in the UK, including in relation to the overseas domestic worker visa – with people in such roles particularly vulnerable to trafficking and abuse – and during the course of the nationality and borders bill legislative process. They said the latter breached the UK’s obligations under international law and “would seriously undermine the protection of the human rights of trafficked persons”.

Campaigners accused the Home Office of deliberately failing to appoint a new anti-slavery commissioner – a role created as a legal requirement under the Modern Slavery Act – to avoid scrutiny while trying to push through legislation on the issue.

Jo Baker, the international advocacy manager at Anti-Slavery International, said: “We are anticipating that serious challenges will be levelled to the UK government’s credibility on modern slavery issues during this review, and its human rights record more broadly.

“Our own review of its record is damning: quite simply, the government is failing victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. The UK government must use this opportunity to take a hard look in the mirror, listen to its peers, get back on track, and commit to a course of action that aligns with its human rights commitments.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The home secretary has committed to reforming our response to modern slavery, to make sure that genuine victims are receiving the support that they need and deserve, whilst cracking down on those exploiting our modern slavery system.”


Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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