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Leave in limbo: Survivors of trafficking with uncertain immigration status

Beth Mullan-Feroze
Kamena Dorling, Danning He
The Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF) works with people who have been trafficked to the UK from abroad and/or have experienced trafficking while on their journey to, or during their time in, the UK. Coming from countries such as Vietnam, Eritrea, China, Nigeria and Albania, these survivors have experienced sexual exploitation, labour exploitation and criminal exploitation in brothels, hotels, cannabis farms, nail salons and shops. Last year, over 12,000 non-UK nationals were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the framework designed to identify and protect victims of trafficking and modern slavery.

For these people, immigration status is a key concern. Without having permission to be in the UK (‘leave to remain’), survivors of trafficking experience ongoing fear and anxiety about the possibility of their removal from the country or being held in immigration detention. This deters many from coming forward to seek help. Even those who are formally identified as survivors of trafficking can face significant hurdles to obtaining the secure immigration status that they need to feel stable enough to begin to engage with support services and the police.

For many survivors it is only once granted leave to remain in the UK, with the sense of safety that this brings, that they can truly benefit from therapeutic care and begin to recover from the trauma that have experienced. A lack of a secure immigration status can also result in poverty, destitution and isolation as it prevents survivors from working and accessing services. This in turn can leave survivors vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and re-trafficking.

Our new report shows that the figures for non-UK nationals being granted leave to remain in the UK through the NRM are shockingly low. 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. During the same time 5,266 children were confirmed as victims of trafficking, but fewer than 21 were granted leave via the NRM. As a result, despite its own inadequacies, the asylum system is regularly being relied on as a 'safety net' and a way to obtain secure long-term status in the UK. 

This is set to get worse following the implementation of a new policy introduced in January, which narrows the already restrictive process for deciding whether a conclusively recognised victim of trafficking should be granted leave to remain. Combined with the Illegal Migration Act 2023 cutting off those who have arrived 'irregularly' from any access to the UK asylum and NRM systems, this will result in survivors being left without meaningful protection and help to recover from their trafficking experiences. 

In order to actually break the business model of the traffickers, support measures must be put in place that allow people to come forward about their exploitation without fear of repercussion and in the knowledge that they will receive support and protection. If we are to enable survivors’ long-term recovery, it is essential that they have stability and safety. For those without secure immigration status who are recognised as victims of trafficking under the NRM, a form of leave to remain with the right to work or access benefits and housing and a route to settlement is vital.

Read the Executive Summary here or read the full report by clicking on the arrow below.

Case study

KM arrived in the UK on a small boat after escaping his home in Iran. Over his journey to the UK, he was transported through Turkey and various countries in Europe. During this time, KM was sexually abused, exploited in forced domestic work (trafficked for labour exploitation), and suffered other forms of inhuman treatment. Upon arrival in the UK, KM claimed asylum immediately.

KM was placed in immigration detention for several months, where his mental health deteriorated significantly before he was eventually referred into the National Referral Mechanism and subsequently released from detention and referred to the Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF) for multidisciplinary care. It took 21 months before KM was conclusively recognised as a survivor of trafficking and another 12 months passed before he was finally granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK. But even then he only received six months’ leave. HBF had to provide further evidence setting out why six months leave was insufficient for him to be able to access and complete the therapeutic support that he required to aid his recovery. It was only when KM was finally granted refugee status that he got long-term leave and was able to start rebuilding his life.

Under the new Illegal Migration Act KM would have been denied all support, both via the NRM and through the asylum system. With no country to which he could be safely sent, he would have been left living in constant fear of removal from the UK, at risk of destitution and further exploitation and abuse.