Through the Nationality and Borders Bill coming to the House of Commons this week, the government wants to create a “fair but firm system” to break the business model of criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable people.
One such group the bill is designed to protect are victims of modern slavery. But sadly, it falls short on this point, which is why I will be seeking to amend it to strengthen the support given to victims of modern slavery.
The journey taken by a slavery victim is both harrowing and dangerous. When a victim is identified through the National Referral Mechanism, it is right they are entitled to support and protection in the UK while the Home Office decides if there is enough evidence to confirm they are indeed a victim.
But strangely, at the end of this process recognition as a victim brings with it no special status and no ongoing support.
Therefore, confirmed survivors of modern slavery remain consumed with fear and worry about their future and day-to-day needs, unable to access support and afraid of repercussions from those who have exploited them while they wait for asylum decisions.
Faced with this insecurity it is no wonder so few survivors have the energy or mental strength to engage with police investigations. At present many modern slavery investigations end without prosecution for lack of evidence while the criminals making vast profits from modern slavery continue to operate with impunity.
Conversely, from pilot projects we know that with support and stability survivors feel empowered to share their intelligence with police often leading to successful prosecution of offenders and ultimately dismantling the organised slavery networks.
I am pleased the government has included in the bill details on when confirmed slavery victims will be eligible for leave to remain in the UK as well as measures to support victims during the National Referral Mechanism process.
But these measures are limited – arguably providing less than what is already available – and as such will be unable to deliver the desired aim of giving certainty and support to victims that enables them to engage with investigations.
Without my proposed amendments this bill will be a missed opportunity to enable more victims to support police investigations. Victims returned overseas without support quickly lose contact with the police and opportunities to gather intelligence against criminal gangs is lost.
I understand the government’s concern that people might falsely claim to be a victim of modern slavery to avoid immigration removal. But this view is not supported by data and misses the bigger picture.
The number of foreign national criminals passed to the National Referral Mechanism from detention is very low (just 133 in 2019) while many genuine victims find themselves in breach of immigration rules on account of their exploitation.
We must not forget that organised criminals who perpetuate modern slavery remain at large, because, in part, of a system that does not adequately support victims.
It is possible to design a strong immigration policy that also supports victims of trafficking so they can share their valuable intelligence with the authorities.
We must show victims that when they come forward, support and protection will be available. If we do not, more victims will be exploited and the criminal gangs responsible will continue to evade justice.
Last year, Lord McColl and I proposed in our Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, to give confirmed slavery victims 12 months of support with leave to remain if they have irregular immigration status.
This is not just the right and fair thing to do for people who have been exploited, it is the best way to demolish the low-risk high-reward business model that the slavery networks enjoy.
I hope my amendments will gain support from members on both sides of the house as I believe modern slavery victims deserve the support and certainty the amendments offer.