Broken Promises: Home Office actions leave survivors of trafficking in fear of their safety and future in the UK
For survivors of trafficking who are not UK nationals, permission to stay in the UK (known as ‘leave to remain’) is fundamental to their recovery. Without this, they live in constant fear of being removed from the country or held in immigration detention. Many survivors, who have already endured terrible exploitation and abuse, have struggled to get the secure status and support they need. However, new information about a Home Office secret policy and u-turn on previous commitments have shown just how bad the situation has got.
Last week, in the High Court Asylum Aid argued, on behalf of one of its clients, that for 15 months until April 2023, the Home Office operated a secret policy to block the right to leave to remain of at least 1,600 people it had itself determined to be confirmed victims of trafficking and modern slavery.
The secret policy, approved by the then-Home Secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, was to block the implementation of the landmark High Court judgment - KTT v SSHD - which required the Home Office to grant recognised modern slavery victims leave to remain if they had a pending asylum claim. This judgment was partially on the basis of the survivors being at risk of being re-trafficked (‘KTT leave’). The government’s disclosure revealed that while the Home Office maintained a published policy that KTT leave would be granted, to avoid criticism from those advocating for protecting victims of modern slavery, such as Sir lain Duncan Smith MP and Theresa May MP. However, it instead operated on secret instructions that its officials should not grant KTT leave.
At that time, the Nationality and Borders Bill (NABB) was going through Parliament with a clause that would narrow the criteria for granting leave to confirmed victims of trafficking. The House of Lords passed an amendment to the Bill to instead introduce 12 months’ minimum leave to remain for victims. However, this was overturned by the government, which argued that this was for drafting reasons and that the Bill was compliant with the UK’s legal obligations, particularly the Council of Europe Convention Against Trafficking (ECAT) - under ECAT survivors are entitled to support and a residence permit if their 'personal situation' requires it. The government confirmed that statutory guidance would be amended to reflect the commitment to providing 12 months’ support.
But the government’s actions have not matched these reassurances. Just a day after the High Court hearing about the government’s secret policy, the Home Office announced that it is now abandoning the commitment it had made (and reiterated during the passage of NABB) that all those who receive a positive Conclusive Grounds (CG) decision, and are in need of tailored support, would receive this support for a minimum of 12 months. The justification for this is that “the existing needs-based approach already ensures that necessary assistance to victims with a positive CG decision is available”, despite recent research demonstrating that this is clearly not the case.
A lack of secure immigration status and tailored support deters many from coming forward to seek help. It also prevents engagement with the police, support services and therapy. It leaves survivors at risk of poverty and destitution as it prevent them from working and accessing benefits. This ultimately can leave survivors vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and re-trafficking. We recently published a detailed report on this which highlighted that, between 2020 and 2022, 5,578 adults were confirmed as victims of trafficking but only 364 adults subject to immigration control were granted leave via the NRM. In the first half of 2023 the numbers were even lower, with only 36 grants in total.
In the face of a wealth of evidence and even Court judgments outlining the need to give recognised victims of trafficking some stability, security, and support to enable their recovery, the government seems to have gone out of its way to break promises, mislead parliament and undo much of the progress made in supporting victims over the past decade. It is vital that survivors are supported for the length of time they need to recover.