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New Illegal Migration Bill could endanger victims of modern slavery


4 min read

The government’s new Illegal Migration Bill is the long awaited “answer” to the problem of small boats crossing the Channel.

When Rishi Sunak set out his five pledges to the British people, the Prime Minister made stopping the boats one of his main objectives. He has worked closely with Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, on the proposed laws.

Under the bill, the Home Secretary will be under a new legal duty to remove nearly all asylum seekers who arrive on small boats. There will also be a cap on refugee numbers. This new duty will take precedence over human rights and modern slavery claims. New powers will allow for the mass detention of tens of thousands of migrants and there will be new constraints on the rights of migrants to use a judicial review to challenge decisions.

This new bill, by putting the precedent on removing migrants, puts the safety of genuine human trafficking victims at risk

Exceptions will only be granted for unaccompanied children and those suffering grave illness. The government clearly feels like it must act decisively. The fact the Prime Minister has made it a priority issue and is continuing with the Rwanda scheme as well demonstrates that he believes it is a vote winner. There are legitimate debates to be had around levels of migration and whether more safe routes would help. But I want to focus on the very specific impact I see this legislation having on victims of modern slavery.

This new Bill will comply the United Kingdom’s commitments under the European Convention Against Trafficking (ECAT). This was a Council of Europe initiative which came into force in the United Kingdom on 1 April 2009. The Convention is designed to facilitate and promote international cooperation on action against trafficking in human beings. It is there to help “protect the human rights of the victims of trafficking”.

Under Article 2, it applies to all forms of trafficking in human beings: national or transnational, connected to organised crime or not. Article 3 sets out the non-discrimination principle which simply states that the implementation of the provisions of the Convention shall be applied without any discrimination.  

This Bill will adhere to ECAT as, modern slavery victims arriving across the Channel will still be recognised as victims. However, they will not be able access the recovery period, prevent deportation or receive support unless the person is helping the police or prosecutors with an investigation or criminal proceedings relating to their exploitation. As such the government is arguing that the new Bill is compatible with ECAT but has been unable to confirm if the modern slavery section is ECHR complement.

 According to the government’s own statistics between 2018-2022, seven per cent of those arriving by small boats claimed to be modern slavery victims. Of those, 85 per cent have received a reasonable grounds decision. Of those, 85 per cent were positive. To be clear: some of those coming into the UK via the small boats are genuine victims of human trafficking. But this new bill, by putting the precedent on removing migrants, puts the safety of genuine human trafficking victims at risk.

It hardly needs stating that ensuring genuine victims of human trafficking receive long-term support is critical. That’s why charities in the trafficking sector have largely been of one mind and pushing for legislation to give confirmed victims at least 12 months support and, where required, leave to remain. Only if we properly support confirmed victims can we increase the chances of them living free and reduce the chances of them being re-trafficked.

I understand the motivation for the government’s bill. But for victims of modern slavery – and, many will argue, for all migrants crossing the channel – the legislation is desperate news. I would remind the government of the commitments it made to confirmed victims of human trafficking during the passage of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and ask how it will ensure modern slavery victims are properly identified and helped to live free.


Rebecca Stevenson, trafficking policy expert at Christian Action Research and Education (CARE).

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