Sir Mo Farah has bravely revealed that he was trafficked to the UK as a child, taken to a new country by a woman he did not know and forced to work as a domestic worker.
Farah’s story is heartbreaking and more common than many realize. Modern slavery affects millions of people around the world, including more than 10,000 in the UK. Modern slavery, which encompasses human trafficking, slavery, and forced labor, is a particularly insidious concept because it overlaps with other issues, such as violence against women and girls, organized crime, and climate change.
It often has to do with migration as well, but not all identified victims are from another country. In the last two years, the majority of modern slavery victims identified in the UK have been UK citizens. But there is a significant proportion of non-British people who are not allowed to stay in the UK once they are identified; they have come to the country from other places, and not always by choice.
Of those who come to the UK, not all victims of modern slavery enter the UK illegally. Many will have originally come on valid visas, or prior to Brexit they may have entered based on their status as EU citizens.
The UK’s new immigration legislation, the Nationality and Borders Act, effectively treats modern slavery as an immigration issue. The changes to the law may seem subtle, but they could threaten the UK’s ability to effectively identify, support and protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
There are many international laws and legal mechanisms to identify modern slavery and protect those affected, including the European convention on human rights. In the UK, guidance published as part of the Modern Slavery Act (2015) outlines the government’s obligations to identify and support all victims of modern slavery.
People identified as victims of modern slavery have the right to support and protection, as detailed in the Contract for Attention to Victims of Modern Slavery. This may include access to accommodation, financial support, translation services, legal advice, medical care, counselling, outreach support, and assistance in returning to your home country if necessary. It also includes the right not to be removed from the UK while your traffic claim is being granted. However, not all identified victims have been able to access this support.
Government guidance states that support should be provided regardless of UK nationality and immigration status. But the Nationality and Borders Law’s emphasis on deportation and removal risks undermining this approach and making it harder for victims to access help.
Many people working in the anti-slavery sector, including researchers at the University of Nottingham Law Laboratory, were and continue to be concerned about the inclusion of modern slavery in immigration legislation.
How the law changes things
The government claims support systems are being abused by dangerous criminals and by those seeking to falsely claim they are trafficked to avoid deportation and thwart their removal from the UK. Government data shows this is not true. Of the decisions they made on trafficking cases in 2021, 91% resulted in victims. This does not show a system that is being abused. However, this is the premise for including modern slavery within the Nationality and Borders Law.
As it is, immigration officials have a duty to look for traffic indicators at the time someone arrives in the country or during their asylum interview.
The Nationality and Borders Law prioritizes the expulsion of those who have entered the country illegally. As a result, those who have arrived in the country illegally will be viewed first as illegal immigrants, not as potential victims of trafficking. This means that your immigration status will take precedence over your victimization. The inclusion of new relocation and deportation measures means that victims risk being penalized rather than helped.
The government has said it has no intention of denying protection to “genuine victims” and that the new legislation will help early identification of victims. However, the law also places a time restriction on when they can provide information or risk damaging their credibility.
Those who enter the UK may first and foremost be seen as illegal immigrants, not a genuine victim. If they disclose their exploitation while awaiting deportation, authorities may see it as an attempt to delay their removal, and indicators of trafficking may be missed.
The burden is on traumatized people to tell their stories the moment they arrive in the UK. We know that victims are not always able to reveal what has happened to them. For some, like Mo Farah, it takes many years. If authorities fail to identify victims, or victims cannot articulate what happened to them quickly enough, they may be at risk of being deported without receiving the help to which they are legally entitled.
The Queen’s speech announced that new laws on modern slavery are likely to be introduced shortly. While what that legislation will entail remains to be seen, the Nationality and Borders Act is one way our system is becoming increasingly hostile to the most vulnerable.
To seek help, for yourself or someone else who may be a victim of modern slavery, you can contact the Modern Slavery Helpline.