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Brexit and UK immigration policy ‘increasing risks to trafficking victims’

·3 min read

A damning new report on trafficking in the UK has warned that Brexit and the Home Office’s new plan for immigration are increasing the risks to trafficking victims.

The report has also found links between terrorism and trafficking in cases involving families from the UK ending up with Islamic State in Syria and an increase in the recruitment of trafficking victims via social media.

Related: Thousands of potential trafficking victims held in immigration centres, data shows

The influential Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (Greta), part of the 47-nation Council of Europe, monitors the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which came into force in the UK in April 2009.

The number of possible victims of trafficking referred to the UK’s national referral mechanism (NRM) has grown tenfold, from 1,182 in 2012 to 10,627 in 2019. The number of referrals in 2020 was 10,613.

The proportion of male victims referred to the NRM has increased over the years: of the possible victims in 2019, 68% (7,224) were male and 32% (3,391) were female. In 2019, possible victims of 125 different nationalities were referred to the NRM. The largest number of referrals were for UK nationals, accounting for 27% of the total, followed by Albania, Vietnam, China and India.

There has been a significant rise in the number of children referred to the NRM, from 1,279 in 2016 to 4,946 in 2020, the majority of which were from the UK and involved in county lines gangs.

Labour exploitation continues to be the most common type for adults. Sectors considered at high risk include the garment industry, construction, hospitality, domestic work, car washes, nail bars, waste management, logistics and warehousing.

There has been an increased trend of using social media and online platforms to recruit victims; in sex trafficking there has been a shift to the use of online platforms. Traffickers can move victims quickly between residential properties – “pop-up brothels” and holiday rental properties.

The report urges the UK authorities to take further steps to improve the identification of victims of trafficking and to ensure that victims, in particular children, receive legal assistance during the identification process. It also called on the UK to increase efforts to guarantee effective access to compensation for victims.

The report welcomes efforts to establish specialised anti-trafficking bodies, the UK government’s active participation in international cooperation to fight trafficking, and a commitment to prevent and eradicate human trafficking from businesses and supply chains, including in the public sector.

The authors of the report are concerned that the Home Office’s new plan for immigration risks increasing the vulnerability of victims of trafficking who are undocumented migrants, as they may be reluctant to approach the authorities for fear of being prosecuted for immigration-related offences.

The report cites cases of potential victims of trafficking recruited in the UK to join a terrorist organisation abroad and says the government should ensure that victims of trafficking are identified as such and receive support and assistance.

A report by the NGO Reprieve documents the circumstances in which numerous British families currently detained in north-east Syria were recruited in the UK and potentially trafficked to territories controlled by IS.

The Greta report states that “Brexit has heightened the risk of exploitation for EU workers” and warns that victims of slavery may have difficulty applying for the EU settlement scheme.

It adds: “Frontline and migrant organisations have noted that the offence of illegal working, part of the UK’s hostile environment for undocumented migrants, acts as a major driver of exploitation and a barrier to justice.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery and human trafficking have absolutely no place in our society and we remain committed to tackling these heinous crimes. The UK has led the world in protecting victims of modern slavery and we continue to identify and support those who have suffered intolerable abuse at the hands of criminals and traffickers.”

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