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David Cameron and Theresa May battled modern slavery – now Boris Johnson is enabling it

Marchu Girma

Marchu Girma

3 min read

Priti Patel pledged to build a system “where criminality is not rewarded”. Yet the Nationality and Borders Bill does exactly that.

Alma’s left her hometown after she was forced to marry a man against her will. But she did not escape. Instead, she was further victimised, passed from one abuser to another, until eventually she was trafficked to the UK. This circle of misery only changed when Alma, now 33, was identified as a victim of trafficking by the UK government. 

Behind the mum-of-two's new life was the Modern Slavery Act, introduced by David Cameron’s government in 2015 and championed by the woman who would succeed him, Theresa May. Arguing for the legislation in Parliament, she described it as “the first of its kind in Europe”, adding, “modern slavery is an evil against which this government are determined to take a stand.” 

Now, another Conservative Prime Minister and Home Secretary are about to undo the work of their predecessors. Under Boris Johnson’s Nationality and Borders Bill, expected to be outlined by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, those who travel to the UK to claim asylum will be assessed on the basis of how they entered the country, rather than the trauma of their claim. Women like Alma, who have been trafficked to the UK and thus arrived by “illegal” means will no longer have the same rights to safety. 

If their victims no longer are guaranteed protection, traffickers’ power is enhanced, not diminished

The Nationality and Borders Bill also proposes a one-stop asylum process, where anyone seeking refuge must disclose at the first instance all the trauma that they have been through. Yet studies of asylum seekers have found those with significant personal trauma, such as victims of sexual violence, struggle to disclose their full story to Home Office officials in a single interview. The UK’s Modern Slavery guidance recognises this, noting that, “Victims’ early accounts may be affected by the impact of trauma. This can result in delayed disclosure, difficulty recalling facts, or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” 

Alma’s experience shows why relying on a single interview could be catastrophic for victims of trafficking. On one occasion, she struggled to disclose her story, because she was allocated a male interpreter. “I did not want to speak to him about my private life,” she said. “Because of my experience I find it difficult to speak to men.” 

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Mr Johnson is not interested in preserving the legacy of Conservative Prime Ministers past. But the irony is that his planned legislation also undermines his own government’s rhetoric. Introducing the Bill in March, Ms Patel pledged to build a system “where criminality is not rewarded”.  

Yet the Nationality and Borders Bill does exactly that. At Hibiscus, we know that traffickers often use the threat of authorities to perpetrate their crimes. If their victims no longer are guaranteed protection, traffickers’ power is enhanced, not diminished. And if those victims are deported because they have arrived “illegally”, there will be no one to testify and bring those traffickers to justice.  

Alma was eventually granted refugee status and is now rebuilding her life in the UK. For Mr Cameron and Mrs May, the Modern Slavery Act represented a significant milestone in British justice — at the time, they even compared it with the achievements of William Wilberforce. Mr Johnson is, if anything, more fascinated with his place in history. Now, though, he appears to be taking a step back.  


Marchu Girma is the Chief Executive of Hibiscus.

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