Around the world, millions of people are wrongfully robbed of basic human rights. The crime of modern slavery does not only go against the more obvious right to life and liberty, but in fact seeps its way across the entire spectrum of rights. It renders people vulnerable and violated. In order to restore this and regain dignity, the support system for victims of modern slavery requires complete reform, something I am calling for once again on this International Human Rights Day.
All are entitled to rights. Whether it is the right to security, the right to education or the right to work, there is no exemption or distinction for who this applies. And yet, in the 21st century, there are millions around the world deprived of their right to be free from slavery or servitude.
In the UK there are an estimated 13,000 victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. Some are from the UK, but the majority are lured here under false promises, deceived to believe they are starting a new life of promise and prosperity on British soil. The reality, however, is quite the opposite. Whether farm or factory, brothel or building site, car wash or cannabis farm, people are forced to work for little or no pay under the menace of threats, penalties and abuse.
Once found victims are given the option of entering the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s system of support for those who have potentially been trafficked or enslaved. The NRM provides accommodation and other vital services for a minimum of 45 days. But this system is splitting at the seams…
The very premise of the NRM is to discern if someone really has been enslaved. After all that these people have been through – the abuse, the violence, the exploitation, being trapped, being scared, being hurt – they are then expected to persuade authorities that they really are a victim of modern slavery, something unimaginably difficult to accept in itself. This begs the question, are there other victims of crime who are required to prove themselves in order to gain support, and if so, how on earth can we help them? All have a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but the NRM questions the blameless. It presumes caution and suspicion instead of care and support. Put simply, this has to change.
Too many people are fearful of even stepping into the NRM, but for those who do, they are given either a positive or negative status as a victim of modern slavery. Those indeed believed to be a victim are then given two weeks to move on from support, while those who are not are given 48 hours to exit accommodation. As one might assume, many victims then disappear off the radar. The NRM has no way of tracking where people go or how they make ends meet, as scores of individuals are left on our streets in need of further rehabilitation yet without access to public funds or services.
We are failing the vulnerable at fatal costs. We need to ensure victims of modern slavery are treated with the dignity they deserve. We need to implement processes that are fair and efficient. We need to provide long-term care, tailored to specific requirements, in order to give victims an opportunity to move forward from their experience of exploitation. We need to prevent barriers to public services, so that individuals can live independently. We need to give special attention to child victims, allocating child trafficking advocates who can embark on the child’s journey of recovery every step of the way. We need to collate data in order to build our understanding of the crime and add to the evidence base in the UK. And we need to lose the preposterous perception that victims are perpetrators.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers to all acting towards one another in a ‘spirit of brotherhood’, but modern slavery is a human evil, inflicted upon humans, for the purpose of human gain; the spirit of brotherhood is nowhere to be seen in this brutal trade of human life. That spirit needs to surface in the transformation of the NRM as we boost the care so crucial for victims and ultimately bring hope to the hopeless, defend the defenseless and give a voice to the voiceless.