The Home Office has reclassified modern slavery as an immigration issue instead of a safeguarding concern in what Hope for Justice describes as a “highly regressive” move.
It follows claims from the Home Secretary last week that modern slavery laws are being abused and “derailing the UK’s policy on illegal migration.”
The Home Office has taken the decision to change which minister will oversee the modern slavery brief – a move which Hope for Justice believes will add additional barriers for survivors.
Former Minister of Safeguarding, Rachel Maclean, had modern slavery as one of the formal duties on her list of ministerial responsibilities. However, her successor Mims Davies has no mention of the crime on her list.
Instead, modern slavery has been listed at the bottom of the “illegal migration and asylum” responsibilities held by the Minister for Immigration Tom Pursglove.
Hope for Justice believes this will create further barriers for survivors of modern slavery who already have to navigate a complex system in order to access support. This approach effectively deprioritises victims. It also ignores that UK nationals make up a large proportion of potential victims.
‘Highly regressive’ move, says Hope for Justice
Robyn Heitzman, our Policy and Research Officer, said: “Broadly speaking, we think the move is highly regressive; there is a worrying conflation between illegal immigration and modern slavery and the shifting of responsibility from the safeguarding minister to immigration minister is likely to exacerbate the issue.”
There was previously a designated role for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime Minister. This post was filled by Karen Bradley from February 2014 until March 2015 when Parliament was dissolved. However, this responsibility for overseeing the crime of modern slavery has now been absorbed into a larger portfolio, sitting under the subcategory of “illegal migration and asylum.”
Robyn Heitzman continued: “In our experience, it is an already highly complex task to ensure victims and survivors of modern slavery can access their rights and entitlements. Assigning the responsibility to the minister of immigration instead of safeguarding is likely to add additional barriers, instead of addressing pre-existing issues.
“As the data shows, more and more victims are being identified in the UK — we are yet to see compelling evidence that the change in the responsibility of minister is needed.”
Despite Suella Braverman’s claims of people “gaming” the system, data in a new report by four NGOs shows that more than 90% of people from detention centres who claim to be trafficked have later been confirmed as genuine via the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the Home Office’s formal process for identifying and providing support for victims of modern slavery.
Furthermore, the report highlights that in the first half of 2022, the Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority, set up by the government, gave positive conclusive grounds decisions – final decisions that people were genuine victims of trafficking – in 97% of cases.
There was a 9% increase in the number of potential child victims referred to the UK NRM in the year ending December 2021, compared with the previous year.
The latest global statistics released by the International Organization for Labour (ILO) show that the number of people estimated to be trapped in modern-day slavery worldwide has risen from 40.3 million in 2016 to 49.6 million people. We anticipate that UK figures will be released in the coming months.
Armed conflict, climate change, and Covid-19 have led to extreme poverty, unsafe migration, and disruptions to employment and education for millions of people around the world. All of these are risk factors for the different forms of modern slavery, especially as those most affected are those who were already vulnerable, including people in debt, in irregular employment, or without legal protection and rights.
The government, under Theresa May, pledged to be world leaders in combating modern slavery. In a statement published by The Guardian, they reiterated this commitment.
A Home Office spokesperson told The Guardian: “We are committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery and in the UK we have a world-leading response. However, it is clear people are abusing our system when they have no right to be here, in order to frustrate their removal.”