Published:

Cllr Meenal Sachdev is a Hertsmere Borough councillor, and is Founder and Director of Shiva Foundation.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, currently being discussed in Parliament, seeks to reform the asylum system to be fairer and more effective, and to break the business model of criminal trafficking networks.

This country has a proud tradition of stamping down on such criminal activity. I don’t claim to be an expert on asylum seeking, but as Founder and Director of Shiva Foundation, an anti-slavery organisation, I do bring an expertise on modern slavery.

Part 5 of the Bill is dedicated to modern slavery, supporting victims and prosecuting traffickers. I, along with over one hundred other experts in this space, fear that unless the section on modern slavery is amended, the result could inadvertently have the opposite effect of its intentions. Victims could be overlooked and the system would then be less effective, resulting in fewer traffickers being found and prosecuted.

I endorse the ethos of the Bill – convicting criminals should be a deterrent for some, and criminals must be caught without delay or compromise. It is estimated that in this country, there are between 6,000 and 8,000 modern slavery offenders; yet in 2020 there were just 331 prosecutions and 49 convictions.

We all want those figures to increase, but we must be careful it is not at the expense of victims.

Amazing work has been undertaken to catch criminals and support victims. One of the most impressive police operations reached its peak in July 2019. Eight offenders from two Polish organised criminal groups were jailed, for trafficking and other charge, for nearly 60 years between them. This ruling was the first of its kind – never before has there been such a large prosecution case in the UK for modern slavery.

The gang trafficked up to 400 victims to work in farms, factories, waste recycling plants, and warehouses. The perpetrators profited by more than £2 million while their victims lived in squalor and suffered physically and mentally. Their slave labour would have touched some of the largest UK retailers. The traffickers targeted vulnerable people such as the homeless and ex-prisoners.

Once the victims came forward, which took a while because of fear for their safety and lack of trust in the police, they were integral to building a case against the traffickers.

This case might never have happened had the Nationality and Borders Bill been in place. Proposed Clause 62 would exclude ex-prisoners from support under the referral mechanism, which is how victims are recorded and supported in the UK. This part of the Bill would also extend to criminals even if the criminal acts they carried out were part of their exploitation (such as county lines offences, where young boys and girls are forced to sell drugs around the country by violent and terrifying gangs).

The Bill, through proposed Clauses 57 and 58, would also give time limits for victims to claim they are victims. Yet sadly what we know is that many victims don’t know what modern slavery is, let alone that they are a victim.

And as with the operation I mentioned, it’s more common than not that victims will be too fearful to come forward or are bribed to keep quiet. The victims in this modern slavery case are still afraid that they will be found and killed, despite the fact that their traffickers are behind bars and more than two years have passed. Victims need time and support to feel safe enough to come forward with their case. We must give them that time and that security.

How would the proposed changes to the Nationality and Borders Bill have impacted on the outcome of that operation? Well, without victims coming forward and working with the police, those criminals are not likely to have been convicted.

Victims are the best source of intelligence. While they have endured a traumatic experience, with appropriate long-term support it is possible to gain their confidence and empower them to speak out about their ordeal. Evidence shows that with time and support, victims are more likely to cooperate with the police and eventually testify against their traffickers. All of this would help us achieve more prosecutions and convictions for the real criminals.

I am proud that this country led the way with the passing of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the great work that’s been done since to identify and support victims. The Act was part of why I decided to dedicate so much time to tackling this crime.

Modern slavey affects an estimated 100,000 victims a year in the UK; it affects more British nationals than any other nationality year after year; slavers can target you whoever you are and whatever your background. Ultimately, modern slavery isn’t an immigration issue, and has no place in such a Bill.

I know we all have the same goal of wanting to see the end modern slavery. I want to continue the conversation about how we can help victims and target criminals effectively. I believe the Nationality and Borders Bill, while driven by the right aims, doesn’t quite meet the mark. We can make it better, and therefore continue to show criminals that we won’t tolerate their illegal activity, while also supporting the victims of their heinous crimes.