Luis C.deBaca is the Robina Fellow in Modern Slavery at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, of Yale University’s MacMillan Center. He served in Barack Obama’s Administration as Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
A few years ago, survivors of the largest slavery prosecution in U.S. history invited me to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their case with them, which I had prosecuted in court. They were no longer the scared and hungry workers we had found behind garment factory fences, but were small business owners, college students, mothers and fathers, joined in America by their families and thriving in their new home. Such an emotional and inspirational reunion could not have happened in the United Kingdom, because the victims wouldn’t have received long-term care, their family members would never have joined them, and they themselves would have been likely to be sent home long before.
As Home Secretary, Theresa May recognised that modern slavery strikes at the heart of our commitment to human dignity, and made combating trafficking her signature issue. As Prime Minister, she again vowed to fight ‘the great human rights issue of our time’. That mantle of leadership, however, is at risk.
As US anti-trafficking Ambassador under Barack Obama, I was honored to testify before the Parliamentary inquiry that resulted in the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. Its supply chain transparency provisions and new criminal tools are a global example. But the same cannot be said for the UK’s victim protection regime, which is rendered almost meaningless by the lack of long-term care and alternatives to removal. Put simply, a country cannot long be a global leader against modern slavery when its own official determination that someone is a victim is undercut by artificial deadlines, lack of services, or even deportation.
That’s why the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Private Members Bill, currently in Parliament is so important. This Bill, tabled by Ian McColl and Iain Duncan Smith will ensure that official recognition that someone is a trafficking victim will result in a year of specialist support and an alternative to deportation.
Lord McColl’s proposal would not only bring the UK into compliance with UN and global standards of victim care, but would result in more effective prosecutions, as victims would know it is safe to come forward. I saw this directly as a prosecutor and diplomat. In the US, trafficking victims can seek immigration status (the “T-Visa”) if they are willing to cooperate with an investigation. They aren’t just used as witnesses, but are recognised for their bravery and protected for speaking out, often at great risk. Family members can join them, escaping retribution in their home country and knowing that there is a chance to make a new life in America. Before the T-Visa was introduced, some had concerns that it would lead to false claims. These concerns have been unfounded, because each victim goes through a careful review by investigators at each step of the way.
In contrast, the current system in the UK offers no comfort or security to victims once they have been identified. While it is possible for victims identified in the UK to be granted a residence permit (including for working with the police), that appears to have happened for only 12 per cent of confirmed victims. Instead, victims who are officially recognised by one part of the Home Office often find themselves pursued by another arm of the same Ministry for deportation.
Immigration issues aside, those who are identified by UK authorities as trafficking victims lose all government-funded specialist support two weeks later. This makes no sense. The Home Office promises to increase this to 45 days, but that is insufficient. Trafficking victims are still in direct trauma at that stage, and need long-term care if they are to recover. With support cut off at this crucial point it is no surprise that, rather than beginning a healing journey and cooperating with authorities, victims in the UK often return to the shadows, and even re-exploitation, to avoid destitution.
Three years after the Modern Slavery Act, prosecutions in the UK remain low. That means that, in spite of repeated political commitments to stop this crime – no matter how frequent, sincere, or significant – state involvement in Modern Slavery cases brings low risk for criminals and high risk for the victims.
So what are Britain’s counterparts doing in similar situations? New research by Nusrat Uddin, a solicitor at Wilson Solicitors, compares the support available to victims in the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and the US: countries that each have anti-trafficking systems considered global models (though each system can be improved upon). Each system recognises that victims fear coming forward to authorities. But only the United Kingdom fails to respond meaningfully to that fear, lacking coherent provision of long-term protection and support.
Uddin’s report is not the first to recognise this. Earlier this year, the American Trafficking in Persons Report recommended the British Government provide specialised services for all types of trafficking victims, regardless of immigration status. And last April, the Commons’ Work and Pensions Select Committee recommended that “all confirmed victims of modern slavery be given at least one year’s leave to remain with recourse to benefits and services…“
As a friend of the UK, I have been proud to support your commitment and leadership in this area. But as a friend, I must also honestly point out this glaring shortcoming in the British approach. Accordingly, I urge Government to seize the opportunity presented by the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill to increase prosecutions, prevent trafficking, and become a global leader in victim protection.