Huge rise in number of trafficking victims in UK immigration detention

The number of trafficking victims locked up in immigration detention centres has increased more than tenfold in the last four years, according to data shared with the Guardian.

The charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex) obtained freedom of information data showing that in 2017 86 people – 14% of those suspected of being victims of trafficking – obtained what is known as positive reasonable grounds decisions after being locked up.

This decision indicates someone is a potential victim of modern slavery. By 2020 the number had jumped to 1,053 people – 86% of those suspected of being trafficking victims – obtaining positive reasonable grounds decisions.

While part of the increase is likely to be because of better Home Office procedures for identifying trafficking victims, anti-trafficking campaigners say it is concerning that such a large number of these victims are not identified before a decision is made to lock them up.

Organisations such as After Exploitation, Women for Refugee Women and Detention Action have documented cases where trafficking victims have been detained for several months and in one case for more than a year.

Campaigners say the data is particularly concerning because the government has admitted new policies will lead to more trafficking victims being locked up.

Under new rules, potential victims of trafficking who are placed in immigration detention are likely to have to provide medical evidence of future harm for officials to consider releasing them – the same rules that apply to others who are detained. Prior to the introduction of the new rules there was greater recognition of the vulnerability of this group.

The newly established Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority has the power to decide whether or not someone is a victim of trafficking when they are detained and in some circumstances when they are not detained.

Peter Wieltschnig, of Flex, said detention was an unacceptable environment for victims of trafficking that could have a severe impact on detainees’ physical and mental health. He warned that the new rules could jeopardise victims’ willingness to come forward and seek help if their immigration status was uncertain.

“This data demonstrates that the government’s immigration-enforcement-centred approach is failing victims. It shows a systemic failure in providing opportunities to disclose trafficking or modern slavery so that victims can be identified and supported rather than detained,” said Wieltschnig.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery; ensuring that victims are provided with the support they need to begin rebuilding their lives and that those responsible are prosecuted.

“Decisions to detain are made on a case-by-case basis and vulnerable people will only be detained when the evidence of vulnerability in their particular case is outweighed by the immigration considerations, such as risk of escape or for the protection of the public.

“Staff in immigration removal centres undertake training on the national referral mechanism and as a result potential victims of modern slavery are regularly identified in detention.”

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