Victims of modern day slavery who have escaped the clutches of abusers are at serious risk of falling back into networks of exploitation due to a lack of resources to support them, charities say.
While the UK government has said the country’s modern slavery laws are being misused by some migrants lodging bogus claims, campaigners have warned that genuine victims are not being given adequate help.
About 10,000 people are trapped in slavery across Britain, according to government statistics. But the actual number is estimated to be in excess of 100,000, according to Unseen, a UK-based anti-slavery charity.
Almost half of referrals made to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government’s system for supporting slavery victims, relate to child victims.
The Salvation Army has a contract with the government to support victims of slavery who have been accepted in to the NRM, which allows cases to be considered by the Home Office.
A recent influx of cases has forced the charity to implement an “unprecedented emergency measure” to suspend accepting new referrals of potential victims.
Kathy Betteridge, the charity’s director of anti-trafficking and modern slavery, told The Guardian the first responder service “has not closed, but we took the decision to temporarily suspend accepting new referrals for a short period so we could give proper attention to the large number of new cases recently referred to us.”
She said the decision highlighted “how much strain” the system is under.
Kalayaan, a West London charity supporting migrant domestic workers, suggested its services were also struggling to cope. It said the situation has led to victims becoming “at real risk of further harm and abuse”.
The group, based in the Netherlands Park, issued a public announcement saying that a recent sharp rise in the number of referrals, particularly since mid-December, has swamped the system. It said for several years “there has been a lack of acknowledgement by the UK government of the need to recruit and train more, as well as existing, First Responder Organisations.”
“The system has become overwhelmed and appears to be at breaking point,” the warning continued. “Some statutory First Responder Organisations remain unaware of their legal responsibilities, and non-statutory First Responders do not have the capacity to cope. This has the very real result that survivors, already victims of severe human rights violations, are unable to be referred to the NRM and access support.
“Without being identified and provided support, survivors are at real risk of further harm and abuse, including treatment that amounts to slavery.”
The Home Office’s definition of modern day slavery relates to human trafficking, slavery, forced or compulsory labour and servitude.
Kalayaan suggested servitude is among the less-well known forms of modern day slavery. On its website, it says this category encompasses people who are “strictly controlled by their employer, have no freedom to leave the house, ill-treated, humiliated, subjected to exhausting working hours”. Employees who are forced to live and work in unbearable conditions or denied pay or given meagre salaries also fall into this classification.
In a statement, a Home Office representative said the department is “committed to do everything we can in supporting modern slavery victims as they rebuild their lives and it is crucial that first responders — such as charities and the police — who refer them to our system are robustly trained.”
It continued: “We have a range of materials available to support this work and are developing a hub where organisations which aren’t responders can learn about modern slavery indicators, leading to better identification of victims.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has accused Albanian migrants of “gaming” Britain’s anti-slavery legislation by filing false claims after illegally crossing the Channel in small boats.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in December struck a deal with the East European nation to deport citizens who had entered Britain without permission. Amid growing pressure from Conservative MPs to get on top of the crisis, Mr Sunak earlier this month claimed regular flights were taking Albanian migrants back to their homeland, a key step to break a “ridiculous” cycle. Robert Jenrick, an immigration minister at the Home Office, later said the flights were taking place on a weekly basis.
Last year, Albanians accounted for about a third of the 45,755 men, women and children who entered the UK illegally via the Channel.