Govt says it will make modern slavery history – but experts warn the victim toll is rising

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, today – Anti-Slavery Day – pledged to "consign modern slavery to the history books", but despite government reports that investigations are on the increase, experts warn that the number of victims is rising too.

18 Oct 2019| News

In its 2019 Annual Modern Slavery Report, the Home Office announced that there were 64% more active investigations into modern slavery in the year to July 2019 than the year previously, at over 1,400 cases.

But around 7,000 suspected victims were identified that year, up by one-third on 2017, according to the Global Slavery Index of human rights group the Walk Free Foundation.

The organisation estimates that 136,000 workers in the UK are victims of modern slavery, while a Freedom of Information Act request by data mapping project After Exploitation revealed that 507 victims were held in government detention centres. Others were deported to areas known for high trafficking activity like Vietnam and Albania.

Jakub Sobik, a spokesman for Anti-Slavery International, believes the “lack of comprehensive victim protecting measures” is the biggest failure of the government’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act.

“In practice, it means that proper care for identified victims is far from guaranteed and we see survivors being detained, deported, or even sent to jail,” he told Reuters.

“This plays into the hands of traffickers, as their threats to their victims that they would be mistreated by the authorities if they come forward are being proven true.”

Other experts told the news outlet that employers and authorities are still confused as to what modern slavery entails, which is preventing the proper identification of victims.

“While referrals have increased, many people seeking support are still turned away by professionals who cannot recognise modern slavery or simply do not believe their stories are true,” Tamara Barnett, Head of Office at The Human Trafficking Foundation, said.

Ahmed Aydeed, Director at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, added that confusion over the issue was down to the government’s lack of action.

He warned that “there is still a lack of understanding of the legislation and the government has failed, for four years now, to publish statutory guidance.

“The courts, in landmark decisions, have highlighted the importance of adequate support for modern slavery victims and the importance of assisting victims as soon as there is credible suspicion of their circumstances.

“It seems the courts appreciate our duties to modern slavery victims, enshrined within statute and international conventions, more than the government.”

But Patricia Carrier, Modern Slavery Registry Project Manager at the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, warned that even with better identification of and protection for victims, the Modern Slavery Act will not be effective unless enforcement is improved.

Just 23% of companies are meeting the minimum requirements of the legislation, she said, and the bar for compliance is set remarkably low.

“Companies face no penalty for not complying with the Act, let alone for weak anti-slavery efforts,” she explained.

“Bizarrely, companies can report having done nothing to prevent modern slavery and still be in compliance with the law.”

Lucila Granada, Chief Executive of Focus on Labor Exploitation, added that the law cannot be separated from its context – unless the UK takes a more humanitarian approach to migrants overall, then trust in authority will be low and victims will be afraid to come forward.

She explained that the Modern Slavery Act is undermined by “the continuation of ‘hostile environment’ policies on immigration”.

“Many migrants in high-risk sectors are unable to trust agencies supposed to support them because they fear immigration repercussions,” she told Reuters.

The Home Office, for its part, has promised to do better. The Cabinet Office today launched the Hidden in Plain Sight campaign in London, which encourages those working in the public services and banks to look for the signs of exploitation among their clientele.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Towson has been appointed the first Migration and Modern Slavery Envoy, with the responsibility for coordinating with other countries to tackle slavery across the globe.