Freedom – or Freefall?
Imagine that everything is taken away from you. Forget your job. Forget your income, too. You have no home and no family you know how to contact.
Imagine that you have 45 days to rebuild. And the clock is ticking.
For former slaves, this isn’t merely a thought experiment. Last year, over 3,800 people went through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for victims of modern slavery. The government offered each of them just over six weeks of support in a safe house before cutting them loose. This is the cruel reality of the UK’s current modern slavery strategy.
During those 45 days of what the government calls ‘reflection and recovery’, a victim’s first task is to prove that they are indeed a victim of slavery or human trafficking. If they can’t or don’t, the clock ticks faster: they have 48 hours to leave their safe house. If they can and do, their stay is extended by 14 days.
In today’s Britain, you can be a slave in January and left to fend for yourself by March. The absurdity of this timetable lies in the fact that the moment of re-entry into society is the moment of maximum vulnerability for a victim of slavery. Megan Stewart, an anti-trafficking consultant, told the Human Trafficking Foundation in 2015 that a victim’s situation is worsened “because their wounds have been opened up, because they only have 45 days to deal with those wounds”. 45 days is not enough time for victims to come to terms with the horror of what they might have experienced for months, years, or even decades.
Fearful of retaliation from former owners or traffickers, victims are now burdened with a thousand new worries: how to get a job, how to find a house, how to get medical and social care. There’s not enough time to process anything. Foreign nationals often can’t even begin to find solutions until their immigration status is clarified. EU and EEA nationals know already that they can’t access many housing and welfare benefits because of a legal quirk. As the critical Work and Pensions Committee report on Victims of Modern Slavery put it in April, “it will often take victims much longer to start putting their lives back together.”
The 45-day limit isn’t efficient – it’s wasteful. It’s like putting a plaster on a broken bone and commanding it to heal. When victims are released without support, they tend to end up on the streets. Traumatised and near-penniless, any progress that was made in a safe house is likely to be reversed. Nobody keeps track of where victims go or what they do. Many fall off the radar completely. Some are even re-trafficked, either by force or for want of alternatives. All the good intentions of the first 45 days come to nothing, the difficulties metastasise, and the solutions become more expensive and time-consuming.
Ultimately, there is no substitute for proper, sustained victim support from the get-go. Kicking the problem down the road helps nobody. When the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland wrote to Sarah Newton MP earlier this year, he argued that the “best source of intelligence is often the victim themselves”. Without continued care, victims are less likely to testify. Victim support isn’t just a feel-good footnote to the objective of catching criminals – it’s the essential component of it.
There’s no use pretending we have no other options. Even within our own United Kingdom, we can see a way forward. The Welsh government’s Survivor Care Pathway has shown considerable success in monitoring and in developing action plans for victims after the 45-day period expires. And just last month, the Scottish government doubled the 45-day limit, so that victims of human trafficking and exploitation can now receive support for a minimum of 90 days. The Work and Pensions Committee has also recommended that victims of slavery are supported for at least 12 months.
If Britain is truly to lead the way in ending slavery, our long-term success will depend on how we treat the people whose liberty we restore. For as long as the offer of support is undermined by its abrupt removal, our efforts will remain restricted by their own design. When victims who think they have been set free are instead sent into freefall, there is no choice but to change.
*Will Bordell is part of René Cassin’s Modern Slavery Campaign Group, find out more about how to get involved by emailing [email protected]