The British government’s decision to pass the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 put this country at the forefront of global efforts to tackle this huge issue. The Act was designed to criminalise the perpetrators and support the victims of modern slavery. These two areas are both crucial because if perpetrators go free and victims go unprotected, there is a high risk that survivors of modern slavery will be re-trafficked.
Clearly when new legislation is enacted we can expect some problems with implementation. Modern slavery is a complex issue to guard against, and the perpetrators always seem to be one step ahead of the authorities. However, what we can improve is the protection we give to victims. Organisations that seek to protect the victims of modern slavery, such as the Hestia Foundation in London, have found the National Referral Mechanism to be slow and impractical.
A recent documentary on Radio 4, Finding Freedom – The Fight Against Modern Slavery, told the stories of victims who have their cases go unprocessed for several years. Solicitor Nusrat Uddin said on the programme that ‘within the first five days the home office should make a decision if there are reasonable grounds’ and if the process is taking years, something has clearly gone very wrong. One victim of modern slavery, whose name was changed to Peter, described the process of waiting for a decision having been trafficked to the UK under the false promise of becoming a professional footballer:
“it’s horrible because you waste 3 years of your life. You are away from other people, you can’t go forward, you can’t go backward, you are just stuck in the middle. You can’t do nothing - all you have to do is to wait, its horrible and the distress is crazy”.
This feeling of limbo that Peter experienced was reflected in several other interviews. Currently even when victims like Peter have been officially recognised, protection only lasts 45 days (BBC Radio 4).
Key figures in government have recognised these levels of protection are not sufficient and that there is a pressing need to improve. Recently there has been a cross-parliamentary effort to amend the Modern Slavery Act to include more protections for victims. Members of Parliament Maria Miller and Frank Field, as well as Baroness Butler-Sloss, have led an independent review of the Modern Slavery Act. Miller said that she welcomed the opportunity to examine the Act, as criminals continually ‘find new ways of exploiting and harming victims’. This is the key challenge that the government and police face in dealing with this issue, and it is encouraging to see an understanding of the scale of this challenge. The fact that this review is independent should also give weight to the findings that Miller, Field and Butler-Sloss produce.
There has also been a more targeted attempt to focus the legislation more closely on the victims. Conservative peer Lord McColl has been behind the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, which had its first reading in the House of Lords in 2017 and is now on its second reading in the House of Commons. The bill guarantees:
- Continued support for 12 months after receiving a positive decision.
- Guarantees victims leave to remain in the UK for this 1 year period
- Minimum standards of support for victims – access to mental and physical health services, accommodation and financial support (Anti-Slavery).
Even with these measures successfully implemented, there would be no guarantee that victims of modern slavery would not eventually be re-trafficked. However, the Victim Support Bill would certainly help to improve the chances for these victims, with the provision of housing services particularly important as they would not have to seek shelter from their original traffickers. Mental health services are also vital, as charities have limited resources and may not be able to provide victims with the specialist help that they need. Therapy is an important part of this as modern slavery victims will have experienced a level of trauma we can’t comprehend.
The Wonder Foundation hopes to add to this work to centre the Modern Slavery Act around the needs of victims. We believe that every problem is an opportunity to build a positive solution and that we should do everything in our power to protect the most vulnerable. We will present our potential solutions at our parliamentary event on the 5th February so please do come along to listen to young people and experts talking about practical ways of guarding against and protecting victims of modern slavery.