Sex-trafficking Victims Traumatised by Home Office Rules


This piece was written by Jo Smith, a correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration lawyers.


Despite the introduction of the much-vaunted Modern Slavery Act 2015, the problem of human trafficking and forced prostitution is still rife in the UK and is found across every town and city. Yet the UK Government are only piling on the problems these extremely vulnerable women face.


Women and girls are disproportionately trafficked into the sex industry and forced to work as prostitutes or in other avenues such as domestic servitude or sold as brides into forced marriages. Migrant women make the ideal target for traffickers as any language barriers make them easy to exploit while isolation comes naturally with them being taken far from home. Many are promised a ‘better life’ when coming to the UK and are offered jobs such as farm work or beauty technicians, however, the reality couldn’t be father from this as women are locked up in ‘pop-up’ brothels and forced to sleep with multiple men all day, every day, for little or no pay. Of the 7,000 victims of slavery and trafficking in 2018, most were homeless British nationals or were imported from Albania, Vietnam, China, Romania and Bulgaria.


However, despite assurances from the Home Office that victims of trafficking should not be detained, hundreds of women who have already been through traumatic experiences are then held at centres such as the notorious Yarl’s Wood with one report by After Exploitation discovering as many as 507 victims were detained in 2018. With so many women experiencing horrific treatment at the hands of the men trafficking them, detention centres where there is documented evidence of sexual violence on the part of the staffdo not offer the support that crime victims should be entitled to.


This had led to a culture of fear in which women do not seek help from the authorities. One survivor who had been through the process said: “…I’m very scared of going to the Home Office. Because some people go to the Home Office, they attend there, they don’t come back … so when you go there, you’re very scared they might detain you.”


A volunteer said of one woman she had met:“She is really scared and finds it hard to know when it’s safe to tell [a man] about the fact she’s been trafficked – if she tells the GP will he call the police?”


One of the prevailing problems when tackling forced prostitution is the inaccuracies reported around legislation for sex work, notably the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s research that proposed the Nordic Model – the criminalisation of buyers but decriminalisation of sellers. Their research has been criticised for relying on inaccurate data and failing to address the issues of sex trafficking separately from consenting adults. The Sex Work Research hubargued the report encouraged the trade to go further underground – where trafficking victims are subsequently trapped. They believe the government is failing to listen to the input of grassroots organisations that have direct input from sex workers themselves. Many countries who have adopted the Nordic model have seen an increase in human trafficking and more problems with forced prostitution.


Yet far from reducing the demand for sex workers, decriminalisation has actually increased it in many cases as it eliminates the criminalisation of buyers, pimps and profiteers. It is estimated that 90% of the sex workers in Spain have been traffickedand experts believe that the UK could experience similar problems should the law swing in a similar way. Increases in sex workers have been reported in countries where prostitution has been decriminalised such as Spain, Ireland and Scotland. They cite austerity, cuts to jobs in the public sector and the decriminalisation of sex work as contributing factors for the increase in human trafficking. Extreme poverty among women, particularly those with families to support, can mean that victims of trafficking are caught in a cycle of poverty and abuse that is not alleviated by the systems that are supposed to help them.


The UK is already a hostile environment for survivors of gender-based violence. The government has received multiple reports stating that forcibly detaining women who have been the victims of abuse contributes to their poor mental health, renders them vulnerable to further abuse and stigmatises them unfairly. Yet they are still regularly putting victims through the process of being held in a detention centre, and it is fear of incarceration that prevents many victims of sex trafficking from speaking out.


What’s more is that the Home Office have been found to be putting women at risk of re-trafficking by placing women in accommodation that is in the same area from where they were originally trafficked. The previous 45-days of financial support for trafficking victims, after which they were expected to be able to earn enough to support themselves, was similarly found to put them at direct risk of exploitation again. Fortunately, the High Court axed the 45-day rule this yearand has implemented a ‘needs-based system’ instead, yet there are fears that local authorities ill-equipped to handle trafficking victims will leave them to fall through the cracks again instead. Slavery survivors should alternatively be offered access to public funds such as benefits until they have fully healed and are ready to integrate back into society as well as some temporary status that would ultimately lead to British citizenship. No victim should be abandoned and left to struggle through the complex immigration system alone while they are still healing. As one Albanian victim told the Guardian: “I am scared that I will have a mental breakdown and that will affect my ability to care for my daughter.”


A private members bill proposed by Lord McColl of Dulwich makes provision for a much more comprehensive support package. The Rights Lab at Nottingham University have even produced a report that suggests longer-term support would boost the economy, potentially to the tune of £25 million, but the bill is awaiting debate which has been difficult to schedule while Brexit still dominates the agenda in parliament.


With so many failings in the current system, the government should be moving towards a more supportive structure rather than seeking to impose more stringent sanctions. Despite having advice and input from a number of specialist organisations, the plans to provide accommodation, counselling and healthcare to the victims of slavery have not materialised. Unless the proposed measures are implemented, the government is only paying lip-service to the fight against slavery while leaving the victims at risk of continued abuse with no recourse to the systems supposed to help them. Until the situation is given priority, the phenomenon of modern slavery will never be effectively addressed.


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