THE BLOG

Slaves Trafficked to the UK Are Victims Not Criminals

15/05/2013 13:05 BST | Updated 14/07/2013 10:12 BST

Trafficking victims from outside the EU receive inferior care compared to those trafficked within the UK and Europe, but with the abolition of the UK Border Agency Theresa May has the opportunity to ensure victims are more adequately supported.

Trafficking for the purposes of sexual or labour exploitation is perhaps the most atrocious form of modern day slavery in our society. Although ostensibly abolished in 1807, the slave trade has yet to be eradicated from our shores.

There are a multitude of ways and reasons that someone could fall into the hands of traffickers. Victims are often handpicked and groomed by traffickers who identify them as vulnerable. Traffickers look for young women, men and children hoping to escape abusive family situations, destitution, or sordid relationships. Traffickers will lie and seduce, offering a way out to already desperate people. They may promise otherwise unattainable advantages: a chance to earn money or study abroad. Some victims are sold to trafficking gangs because their families need the money and cannot afford to keep them.

Tribal magic or threats of violence to family members are often used as a means of control. In some of the most insidious cases, traffickers have posed as relatives and even parents to maintain power over young children, bringing them into the country to work for them and others.

No matter how they fall prey to it, trafficked people are all brought into this country as victims of an abhorrent crime.

For victims trafficked within the UK and EU, the UK Human Trafficking Centre (led by the Serious Organised Crime Agency) is the multi-organisational group that exists to prevent trafficking, protect its victims and prosecute the criminals. It acts as the "Competent Authority" designated to deal with trafficking referrals from the police, local authorities and NGOs -- unless the victims are also seeking to claim asylum. Those cases fall under the UK Border Agency's remit and are instantly disadvantaged. Despite the National Referral Mechanism, introduced in 2007 to safeguard trafficking victims, the UKBA has consistently failed to protect foreign nationals who have been trafficked.

The asylum process itself is predicated on suspicion and disbelief. Many victims receive custodial sentences in the first instance, usually for an offense such as using false documents - the very documents provided to them by their traffickers. They can serve up to a year in prison before being moved to an immigration removal centre; meanwhile, their complex needs as victims of human trafficking are ignored. Charges of false documents also serve to undermine the claimant's credibility and allow the UKBA to view the entire asylum claim negatively, thereby discounting the trafficking story.

Despite its own policies on the matter, the UKBA has proved unable to train its large staff effectively to deal with victims of trafficking. Screening interviews for asylum seekers are not well tailored to identify trafficking victims - hence the high number of detentions . The subsequent Substantial Interview presents a further ordeal for people who are traumatised, confused by the system and fearful of their precarious situation.

The result is that huge numbers of claimants identified as trafficked spend time incarcerated in detention facilities and receive removal directions, compounding their mental health issues and denying them access to much-needed services. Those who are returned home can find themselves outcast, destitute and at risk of re-trafficking - both by traffickers keen to punish escapees and by the lack of options available, especially to trafficked women seen as dishonoured in the eyes of their communities.

Victims of trafficking already endure an overwhelming amount of physical, psychological and emotional difficulties as a result of their experiences. Expecting them to survive return to an unknown and unstable situation is a delusion - but the reality of return is something immigration authorities are all too keen to ignore.

On March 26th 2013, Home Secretary Theresa May announced the abolishment of the UK Border Agency due to its poor performance and its inability to deal with the volume of casework. The agency will be brought back into the Home Office proper and separated into two arms, one for Visas and Immigration and the other for Immigration Law Enforcement. Trafficking cases will not sit easily in either camp.

Neither Teresa May nor the recent Queen's Speech have expanded on how the new arrangement will deal more effectively with the 24-year backlog identified by the most recent Home Affairs Committee report, but new legislation is certainly on its way.

Unfortunately, the effective identification and protection of trafficking victims will always be impossible to achieve when the aim of the organization is gate-keeping. This focus prevents the Home Office from fulfilling its role as a Competent Authority to safeguard trafficked people. Human rights organizations are urging Theresa May to seize the opportunity to separate trafficking cases from the mire of asylum and immigration casework. They contend that the UK Human Trafficking Centre should have competency over all victims, no matter where their horror story began.

Trafficking victims witness the worst of humanity. They are vulnerable to a sophisticated and powerful network of criminals who, to a large extent, evade the law entirely. Subjected to some of the most degrading and despicable acts humankind has been able to imagine, they experience tortures that will linger for their lifetime and tarnish their future experiences and relationships.

Yet because of the vagaries of our immigration and asylum process, and despite endless consultations and continual adjustments to policy, many of these victims are being let down, re-traumatised and put at risk of re-trafficking and further abuse. Surely, it is appropriate to recognize the particular needs of this group as a whole, despite their immigration status, and allow people to be treated first and foremost as victims of a most heinous crime.