Spending time with victims and survivors of modern slavery is an important part of my role. Sometimes I visit safe houses, but I have also met victims in churches, asylum seeker accommodation, conferences, offices and on social occasions. I have often been struck by their courage and strength despite having suffered appalling abuse. I have also become gravely concerned about the length of time they are waiting for decisions from the Home Office about their future.
Despite the 2017 promises of reforms to speed up decision making, victims are waiting longer. Many victims from outside Europe are waiting two to three years for a trafficking decision, and then face another wait if they are claiming asylum. Their lives are on hold as they face an agonising wait about their future. The delays in the system are bad enough, but many are prevented from working by immigration bail. The system is not doing enough to equip them to become survivors and to live a life of sustainable independence.
I recently met a Vietnamese survivor of modern slavery who had received a positive trafficking decision and had been given leave to remain in this country. He was about to leave a safe house after several years and explained to me in gestures and a few words that he was going to live with his friend in south London and hoped to become a chef. He was determined to become independent, but this would have been much easier if he had been able to attend English classes, train as a chef in college or even work to help to support himself.
While visiting Belfast this week I took the opportunity to meet victims and service providers at both Migrant Help and Women’s Aid. It was encouraging to hear about the range of educational options that victims were pursuing and again several victims shared their desire to access work. It was good to hear from survivors who had received both trafficking and asylum decisions and were looking forward to the future. They were being supported in their progress towards sustainable independence in a new project which sounds really promising.
Many victims are facing unacceptably long delays for a bureaucratic system to assess whether they are victims of slavery. I have no doubt that this has a negative impact on their physical and mental health. This harm is then exacerbated by the fact that access to education is highly variable and access to work is often limited to those who are from countries which are members of the European Economic Area.
In the short term the Home Office need to reduce the delays in the system, but surely the time has come for more radical reform? Often cases are complex and vulnerable victims have many needs which are probably best met through a more local approach. The time is right to work together to develop new ways to support the most vulnerable victims and improve their longer term outcomes.