Support not Deport! The U.K. government is feeding into the hands of traffickers: a call to stop
the criminalisation of potential victims of trafficking
For many years, women with insecure immigration status have faced harsh changes in the law. Under the new ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ introduced in the House of Commons on 7th March 2023, people entering the UK illegally (I.e., on small boats, in lorries, with fake documents), will be subject to imminent detention, deportation, and unable to access legal routes of asylum or modern slavery protection. Currently, for the vast majority of people seeking asylum, there are no safe legal routes to arrive in the UK. This forces people into taking dangerous journeys; often risking their lives to seek safety.
Hibiscus is the UK’s leading organization working with Black, minoritised and migrant women and families at the intersection of the immigration and criminal justice systems. With over 35 years of specialism, Hibiscus enables marginalised migrant women trapped in the immigration and criminal justice systems to rebuild their lives. Hibiscus, like the rest of the refugee support community, is profoundly concerned by this new Illegal Migration Bill, particularly the impact it might have on the women we support and work with. We supported 996 clients across all teams and projects from April 2021 to March 2022. 167 clients had trafficking concerns, including those referred to the National Referral Mechanism, with Positive and Negative Conclusive Grounds. 97 of these clients were in the community; 6 were in prisons and 64 were in immigration removal centres. Female potential victims of trafficking are at higher risk of being criminalised, further exploited, and detained.
In recent months, we have observed an increase in the narrative that potential victims of trafficking and women with insecure immigration status are untrustworthy and ‘play the system’. Hibiscus rejects this narrative and is gravely concerned. In 2022, just over 5,000 of the 45,000 people who arrived in the UK by small boat were women. The UK Government’s own data shows no abuse or misuse of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the official system through which victims of modern slavery and trafficking are identified. The number of potential victims of trafficking referred to the NRM are thought to be an underestimation of the true number of victims living in the UK. At Hibiscus we recognise that it can take years of support for victims to disclose their trafficking, and recognise that they have been exploited. Under the new Illegal Migration Bill, potential victims of trafficking will be left unprotected with no route to safety and support, as their right to asylum and NRM applications is removed. In addition, a potential victim who attempts to escape their trafficker will face either deportation to the unsafe location from where they were trafficked, or possible removal to Rwanda.
Victims of trafficking and modern slavery have experienced exploitation, abuse and trauma. The government is aware of the specialist support required, and that potential victims of trafficking are more vulnerable and susceptible to further exploitation, as protections are already provided under the Victim Care Contract through the NRM. The government has not revealed any plans to safeguard potential victims of trafficking who have entered the UK illegally.
Hibiscus is clear in its rejection, concern, and disagreement with Rwanda’s resettlement scheme. We do not believe that relocating people to a country where they have no familial or community connections, and where they may not speak the language, will help individuals rebuild their lives. This policy does not constitute a fair immigration process and system. Asylum seekers have the right to a safe place where they can be protected regardless of their mode of entry or travel, and this goes against that. This new legislation could put them in greater danger and they might never find safety; for example, survivors of trafficking could end up back in the hands of their traffickers if this measure is implemented. Relocating asylum seekers to Rwanda goes against legal obligations under the Refugee Convention to offer protection to displaced persons and refugees.
We at Hibiscus foresee negative consequences for the Black and minoritised migrant women we support if the new Illegal Migration Bill is passed in Parliament; potential victims of trafficking will be falsely criminalised and their vulnerabilities to exploitation will increase as their route to safety is removed. The Illegal Migration Bill will not prevent people from coming to the UK, it will only create more exploitation, more crime, more mental health, more substance misuse, and more dangerous routes for people smuggling. People suffering in these situations, will have more fear about escaping, as the authorities cannot protect them and they will be deported. We have learnt through history that turning away persecuted people is inhumane, and the 1951 Refugee Convention was created to ensure refugees and displaced people are not returned to a country where they face serious threats to their lives and freedoms.
If passed, the Illegal Migration Bill will allow authorities to deport people arriving on its shores via small boats across the English Channel. This will result in the removal of the right for potential victims of trafficking to apply for Asylum and safety in the UK. There will be no way out for women victims of trafficking. The bill would also make it impossible for victims of modern slavery to access the support they are entitled to since they will be removed from the UK. Without access to emergency and support services, thousands of women will be in grave danger. Victims have a right to a recovery period, protection and for their needs to be addressed.