Unsupported by the Modern Slavery Act and Denied Support: Sex Trafficking Survivors Left to Fall Through the Cracks

There are many avenues of exploitation that fall under the remit ‘modern slavery’, under which vulnerable migrants are often trafficked for the purpose of forced labour, forced criminality, domestic servitude, forced marriage and forced prostitution – to highlight just a few.

Yet unlike most other forms of slavery, women and girls are disproportionately plunged into sexual servitude in which they are sold against their will as brides for the purpose of securing spousal visas for foreign men in the UK or forced to work as prostitutes in so-called ‘pop-up’ brothels up and down the country. The very nature of sex work being shrouded in secrecy only serves to swell the pockets of gangmasters and pimps as they can operate with impunity – often at the women’s expense. Oxford Brookes University has found as many as 1.1 million victims are trafficked while over 93,000 ‘sex slaves’ are abused in hotels – just across the continent every single year.

Although the UK government outlined plans on anti-slavery day 2019 to ‘consign modern slavery to the history books’, confidence in the Home Office to deliver such a lofty promise has waned significantly since the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Despite its ‘ground-breaking’ introduction, slavery has rocketed year-on-year: the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) identified under 4,000 victims in 2016 which, by 2018, rose to almost 7,000 according to statistics by the National Crime Agency – yet according to the former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, only 1 per cent manage to see their abuser sentenced and brought to justice.

As of late, Airbnb’s, caravans, holiday homes and cheaply rented accommodation are becoming hotbeds for criminal activity and prostitution, and are found in every village, town and county across the country. Despite the honourable efforts of local authorities such as Leicester (which rescued 421 victims – 85 per cent of which were Romanian), Northumbria which found 259 women (of which three-quarters were also Romanian) and Greater Manchester, Scotland, Somerset and London similarly coming to the aid of women trapped in sexual slavery, police forces’ grip on the endemic pales in comparison to the true scale that is going on behind closed doors.

Once victims become seized in the evil clutches of slavery, they often have no means to escape and are forced to perform and fulfil atrocious demands, all the while being kept in inhumane conditions and paid a fraction of the profit that their gangmasters rake in. Migrant women make for an easy target in the sex trade as language and cultural barriers, coupled with being far from home and any family, means traffickers can snatch them off the streets of their home countries and take them to the UK. Most commonly, traffickers lure women from the poorest regions of Europe, promising them well paid work in nail salons or in agriculture. Only when they arrive to the UK are they then trapped in a foreign country with no legal right, no documentation and no money. No one is aware of the hell they are subjected to where they are raped for hours on end, 7 days a week.

However, the path to liberation for migrant trafficking survivors is obstructed by the immigration rules. Going against the Home Office’s own ‘Adults at Risk’ policy, as many as 507 trafficking and slavery victims were held in detention centres last year according to research by After Exploitation, despite the debilitating effects being detained can have on survivors’ mental and physical health.

What’s worse is that the emotional support and financial aid such survivors are entitled to is few-and-far between. Cases belonging to gender-based violence survivors are being neglected and assessed inadequately, resulting in women being inappropriately housed in mixed-sex accommodation where strange men can haunt the corridors and cause survivors to live paralysed with fear inside their homes. The NRM has even been found to re-house women in the exact same areas from where they were originally trafficked. Being in such close proximity to their captors and customers, the women are exposed to re-exploitation and re-trafficking again.

The NRM support was also once limited to six weeks after which the sudden drop-off was plunging women into destitution, homelessness and prostitution once more. Fortunately, the High Court recognised that the time restriction was unfit at safeguarding victims and has now implemented a ‘needs-based’ support system instead. However, critics warn that survivors may become victims of the ‘postcode lottery’ under this new system since local councils are often ill-equipped when it comes to locating and sourcing funding materials in disadvantaged socio-economic areas. Those without permanent footing in the UK such as undocumented immigrants may be pushed to the bottom of the pile and last in line on the government’s long list of priorities. One joint study conducted by the British Red Cross, Hestia and Ashiana found 1,717 migrant survivors had their asylum claims refused between 2015-17 while 752 victims were refused NRM support entirely. Exemplary of the Home Office’s unnerving cruelty towards traffickers is the recent case of Hope: Hope was trafficked and sexually exploited at just ten years old in Zambia where she grew up as a sex slave in her stepfather’s sex trafficking ring, yet after escaping and seeking sanctuary in the UK, the Government denied her asylum claim and could deport her back into the arms of torture.

The Home Office is failing to protect migrant women – and will continue to do so for as long as immigration officials can continue to avoid accountability for their inhumane treatment of the world’s most vulnerable and persecuted individuals. It emerged only last month that 96% of all complaints about the government belong to the immigration department, uncovering years of scandals.

The entire system needs ripping out and starting again. It cannot be that, in modern Britain, survivors of slavery are being shackled by immigration enforcement and Home Office rules. We might have abolished slavery centuries ago, but here it is now on our very front door steps. How many more women and children must suffer unnecessarily before the Government takes notice?

This article has been written by Olivia Bridge who is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration solicitors in the UK.