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Illegal Migration Bill will turn back the clock on modern slavery legislation


4 min read

One group likely to welcome the Illegal Migration Bill being debated this week is people traffickers. For them, it could be good for business.

This bill won't just stop people from claiming asylum. It will also stop people who have been trafficked and survivors of modern slavery from accessing vital support. Last year the British Red Cross supported over 30,000 people seeking safety on our shores. We know how vital protection is for people. We will see the devastating impact this will have. 

The United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 was introduced to deal with perpetrators and protect survivors. It was an example of the UK’s leadership and compassion, and countries around the world have aspired to replicate it.

We should not bow to unfounded fears that the system is being gamed or abused

The proposed new laws undermine the principles and  practice of supporting people rescued from slavery. Clause Two of the bill means anyone who hasn’t arrived directly from a territory where their life and liberty was threatened, and is without a visa, would be detained and removed. This blanket rule will include people being trafficked into modern slavery, even if they came to the UK under duress.   

Here’s how it currently works. A woman – let's call her Amina – is in detention near the Kent coast. Amina has bruises, won’t make eye contact, is confused about where she is. Concerned she may be a victim of modern slavery, Border Force staff refer her to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government’s framework to identify and support survivors. Further conversations reveal Amina has been kidnapped and forced into sex work to repay her step-father’s debts, before being sold on and trafficked through Europe. Under the current process, for at least the next 30 days Amina has legal advice, accommodation, practical and emotional support here in the UK, helping her to break free from exploitation.  

If the current version of the Illegal Migration Bill is passed, the outcome is very different. Even if it is found there are reasonable grounds to believe she is a victim of modern slavery, Amina is instead detained for at least 28 days for removal to a “safe third country”. This terrifies her, as she knows her traffickers operate all over Europe and will find her. With no returns agreements in place with any of the countries she was trafficked through she will either stay in detention or be released on bail in the UK with little to no support. Having experienced trauma we cannot imagine, Amina needs support and our compassion. Meanwhile, because her case was never investigated, the criminals who trafficked her are free to continue to exploit others. 

Amina’s situation is drawn from the experience of people in crisis who our teams support. Our recent report with UNHCR highlights how fear, mistrust and isolation can prevent trafficked people from seeking protection. This bill is already creating huge anxiety and fear among the people we help across both our refugee and anti-trafficking services – some people are going underground as a result, risking further harm. 

We should not bow to unfounded fears that the system is being gamed or abused. Only a competent authority, such as the police, National Crime Agency or local authority can refer someone to the NRM – people cannot claim they are a survivor themselves.   

Recent data shows seven per cent of all referrals into the NRM were from people in detention, who had originally arrived in the UK on small boats. Due to the nature of trafficking, we would expect this – survivors of trafficking are often detained for removal after being picked up during raids on brothels, nail bars and cannabis farms. This means immigration detention could be the first setting where they disclose their experience of exploitation resulting in a referral. 

We know, through our work at the British Red Cross, that the UK is a compassionate country. We see this through the work of our volunteers, donors and partners willing to give up their time and money to help people sometimes in unimaginable situations like these.   

If we are to be a force for good in the world, then we must lead by example. We must protect our world-leading anti-slavery legislation and defend people's ability to get support through the NRM, no matter how they arrive. 

We are a country with a proud history of supporting people at risk and we must enshrine protection rather than punishment for those that need it most.


Mike Adamson, chief executive of British Red Cross

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