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‘They’re people just like you and me’

By Lottie Fountain

Will the UK Government listen to recommendations and reform human rights legislation or continue down the path of Right-wing anti-immigration policy?

In the recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2022, which assesses a country’s adherence to human rights, the UK was scrutinised for its policy over the last half-decade. The UK government received over three hundred recommendations for improvement, fourteen of which covered concerns over modern slavery. 

UPRs are designed to encourage frequent international dialogue and hold those in power to account. During this period, UN member states will publicly applaud or criticise counterpart states for their policy’s adherence to human rights every four and a half years. States then take six months to respond to all questions and recommendations, either ‘supporting’ or ‘noting’ the notion, which translate to acceptance and rejection respectively. In the previous UPR in 2017, the UK was commended by over twenty countries for the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) in 2015, which required companies with an annual turnover of over £36 million to publish statements outlining the steps they have taken to eradicate or prevent modern slavery. The latest UPR evokes a substantially different picture.

The MSA was implemented to more effectively prevent and identify cases of modern slavery and human trafficking. Following its enactment, the number of potential victims identified in the UK rose from 3,266 to 6,993 in 2018. The UK was leading a progressive global response to the threat of modern slavery, with the MSA’s commitment to obligatory corporate transparency acting as a barrier to supply chain slavery. In reality, slavery remained under-reported, but there was evidence of operational responses improving. The last five years have seen a pitiful erosion of these developments. The fundamental shortcoming lies in that the government acts on the basis that their relatively modest response to supply chain slavery within trade policy is sufficient in preventing modern slavery. Put simply, the prerequisites for eradicating modern slavery are threefold: effective administration for identification; thorough and efficient investigation; and the protection of those at risk. 

Identifying potential victims is imperative, which grants NGOs the vital responsibility of the first step. Not only are there far too few NGOs authorised to conduct the referrals to the National Referral Mechanism, the NRM itself has undergone several alarming changes since the last UPR. Criminal convictions of over twelve months can ban victims from receiving support, gravely misunderstanding the nature of human trafficking and even the government’s own findings. The Home Office themselves published a report just two years ago claiming that a large fraction of trafficking victims were forced to commit crimes throughout 2021. Furthermore, the government has decreed that cases will be deemed less credible in the absence of early disclosure. Survivors are subject to unjust disadvantages by a government whose policy appears to breach the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. It seems that policy pertaining to human trafficking and modern slavery does not reflect consistency with government-collected data or a sincere intention to protect victims. Georgina Russell from Anti-Slavery International told the Glasgow Guardian: “The UK Government must listen to survivor voices, prioritise recovery support and treat modern slavery as the horrific crime that it is.”

So, what about the cases that are identified? Well, on reaching this point, the fight for recognition from the law has only just begun for these victims. They now face an average wait time of 553 days for the initial decision to reach ‘conclusive grounds’, according to an investigation carried out by Sky News, which constitutes an increase of 214 days since 2020. This waiting time is expected to rise with the ‘permission stage’ that could come alongside our unsettling new Bill of Rights. Victims receive modest subsistence payments until their investigation is complete, but a survey carried out by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group in 2022 exposed that every survivor they approached reported experiencing destitution during this time. With that in mind, 160,000 people in the UK are currently waiting to hear the result of their applications for asylum. Does this sound like protection to you? 

And if you can conceive it, those are the lucky ones. An estimated 566 potential or confirmed victims of trafficking, and 200 child asylum seekers who had been referred to the NRM went missing between 2020 and 2022. Others are being forcibly removed from the UK by the government before the investigations of their cases have even been completed. In an attempt to prevent people from seeking asylum in the UK, the ‘Rwanda asylum plan’ was announced on 14th April 2022, which can legally send asylum seekers to Rwanda on a one-way ticket, with no limit on numbers. The plan was to deter illegal immigration to the UK, but numbers of asylum seekers crossing over to the UK have not fallen since the policy was introduced. The scheme has been widely criticised for breaking international human rights laws, with the airline enlisted to transport asylum seekers withdrawing from the contract following backlash. Those most vulnerable to modern slavery and human trafficking are being deported, with unequal recognition from UK law, yet this scheme was ruled legal by the High Court last December. 

The argument in favour of deporting asylum seekers often claims that the UK cannot afford the current asylum system, so let’s look into that. According to the BBC, it costs the UK around £1.5bn each year to accommodate asylum seekers. Given that almost £7m per day of this cost accounts for hotel accommodation costs, critics highlight that the government bans asylum seekers from working until they have received confirmation of their status. The government needlessly worsen the financial pressure associated with the UK’s asylum system by delaying these confirmations. This serves to prove that, even disregarding the dehumanisation of potential victims, the forcible removal of asylum seekers is nonsensical on all grounds.

On 7 March, Sunak’s Illegal Immigration BiIl was introduced in the House of Commons. This will allow the UK government to immediately remove any people entering the UK illegally. The aim of the bill is to deter illegal immigration to the UK, but experts from across the country are shaming the bill for its lack of humanity while far-right leaders are praising Sunak’s proposed bill for its ‘harsh but fair’ policy. Labour MP, Nadia Whittome joined a demonstration against the Bill in Parliament Square this week, and told the crowd: “People arriving on our shores .. they’re not an invasion, they’re not queue jumpers, they’re not criminals, they’re not illegal. They’re people just like you and me.” Attendees of the protest are encouraging citizens to contact their MPs in opposition to the Illegal Immigration Bill.

If the government is committed to ending modern slavery and human trafficking, they must support the recommendations from the UPR and reform human rights legislation to grant protection to those who are most vulnerable. 


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