More victims of trafficking will be locked up in detention and forcibly removed from the UK after MPs approved a change in Home Office rules relating to this vulnerable group, campaigners have warned.
MPs recently confirmed what is known as a statutory instrument. This change in rules relating to the detention of trafficking victims comes into force on 25 May and will require them to provide a higher standard of proof that they should not be detained.
Lawyers and human rights campaigners say the imminent changes will lead to many more victims of trafficking being locked up.
Nearly 3,000 people identified as potential victims of trafficking have been detained since 2019 due to their immigration status. Many of those detained are subsequently deported from the UK. These numbers are expected to increase.
A freedom of information response obtained by the Scottish Refugee Council showed that between April 2017 and December 2020, of 5,088 recognised victims of trafficking from outside the EEA, only 260 were granted discretionary leave to remain, while 3,443 were not granted discretionary leave and 1,385 decisions were pending. It is possible that another form of leave has been granted to some victims but many acknowledged trafficking victims do not qualify for other forms of leave.
Under the new rules, potential victims of trafficking who are locked up in immigration detention will have to provide medical evidence of future harm for officials to consider releasing them from detention – the same rules that apply to others who are detained. At the moment there is greater recognition of the vulnerability of this group when they are detained.
In previous years, even with better safeguards, there have been many concerning cases. A Latvian victim of trafficking won £15,000 in damages for false imprisonment after she was detained between March and May 2019.
She had been forced into trafficking drugs in her home country after borrowing money when she got into debt following cancer treatment. She was suspected of being tortured by her traffickers and was at risk of being retrafficked had the Home Office forcibly removed her.
In a second case, a Vietnamese victim of trafficking was detained between 17 July and 25 September 2018. He was forced to work in a house in Birmingham used as a cannabis farm. He was arrested during a raid and sentenced to 10 months in prison for production of a class B drug.
He was served with a deportation order on 21 March 2018 and his detention under immigration powers was authorised on 30 May 2018. Although he was identified as a potential victim of trafficking, he was not released until legal action was launched. The Home Office has agreed to pay him £22,000 in damages for false imprisonment.
These two cases illustrate the importance of potential victims of trafficking having access to legal representation while detained.
Concerns were expressed that on a recent Home Office charter flight to Vietnam, a country that is a major source of trafficking, not everyone on the flight had adequate access to legal advice before removal after it emerged that six of 14 people forcibly removed on the flight did not spend five days prior to departure in immigration detention centres, which lawyers say is recommended under Home Office guidelines.
The Home Office denied that anyone on the flight did not have full access to legal advice. Home Office sources told the Guardian that there was no legal requirement for individuals to be detained in immigration removal centres for five days prior to removal.
Graham O’Neill, policy manager at the Scottish Refugee Council, accused the Home Office of systemic failure to provide the leave to remain to trafficking victims. “The Home Office must recognise this and desist from removals of survivors,” he said.
Ahmed Aydeed, a solicitor at Duncan Lewis, who represents many victims of trafficking, said: “The home secretary is, on a regular basis, compelled to accept her wrongdoing of falsely imprisoning survivors of trafficking and modern slavery. She is regularly compelled to pay damages for her wrongdoing, but yet continues to detain thousands of survivors every year for administrative convenience.
“The home secretary now plans to further downgrade protection against administrative detention for survivors of trafficking, which will lead to even more victims being detained. She recognises the likely harmful consequences imprisonment has on survivors’ physical and mental health, but continues to push for these changes.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government’s generous safeguards for victims are open to abuse by failed asylum seekers or foreign criminals who have no right to be here. Attempts to cheat the system diverts resources away from genuine victims of trafficking, persecution and serious harm.
“The UK has led the world in protecting the victims of modern slavery and we will continue to support those who have suffered intolerable abuse at the hands of criminals and traffickers so they can rebuild their lives, while preventing the exploitation of the system.
“We are fixing an anomaly in the system to make sure that those who we believe may have been a victim of modern slavery are treated consistently with all other vulnerable people in immigration detention, such as those with serious physical disabilities.”