The Cliff Edge: Why we are challenging Home Office policy to limit support to victims of trafficking

SUPPORTING VICTIMS OF TRAFFICKING AND MODERN SLAVERY

Supporting victims of trafficking and modern slavery is not merely a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation. We are representing two victims, known as NN and LP, who are holding the Home Office to account to ensure that it does not shirk its responsibility to provide adequate support to victims.

The National Crime Agency reported that, in 2018, nationals from 130 different countries were referred as potential victims of human trafficking or slavery to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the United Kingdom’s framework for identifying victims. The number of victims referred is growing: in 2018, it was nearly 7,000, compared to just over 5,000 in 2017. In 2016, it was under 4,000. This dramatic rise may be in part due to increased awareness of the scale of the problem and increased reporting of incidents of exploitation. These victims are trafficked from all over the world, and often have very little in common other than their shared characteristic of having been exploited at the hands of traffickers or enslavers.


TRAFFICKED AND TRAUMATISED

NN was trafficked from Vietnam and forced to cultivate cannabis, while LP was trafficked from Albania and subjected to sexual exploitation. NN tried to escape, but was badly beaten and had some of his teeth knocked out. He was subsequently arrested and imprisoned as a criminal offender for his involvement in cannabis cultivation. LP was helped to escape from her traffickers after arriving in the United Kingdom and shortly thereafter gave birth to a daughter. NN has since been diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Both NN and LP were then required to prove their experiences to the Home Office, in order to be officially recognised as victims of trafficking.

Victims of trafficking and slavery are some of the most vulnerable people in society, and both NN and LP have intensive support needs. The Home Office is obliged to provide support to victims under the Trafficking Convention, and by its own policies, and outsources responsibility for its provision to the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army, in turn, has a number of subcontractors who support victims – through limited financial support, access to safe house accommodation and contact with a support worker. Both NN and LP have support workers who regularly visit them in their asylum accommodation to help with their day-to-day needs.

In early 2019, both NN and LP were conclusively recognised as victims of trafficking under the NRM. This should have been the moment when they were able to breathe a sigh of relief; when, finally, they knew that the Home Office recognised that their traumatising experiences had happened. But there was no such respite. In fact, days after being told that they had been recognised as victims, they were advised that the support they had been receiving had to stop.


JUST NOT OUR POLICY

It is Home Office policy to end support to victims of trafficking and slavery only 45 days after they have been conclusively identified as victims. Victims are told that the support that they have come to rely upon to go about their daily lives, to assist in their recovery and access necessary services, must end abruptly. Many victims have complex mental health needs, have suffered lives of trauma that will take years to recover from. Despite this they are told: yes, we accept that you are victims, but now you are on your own. This drop-off in support has been termed a “sharp cliff edge” by those in the charitable sector who are left to try to fill the gap and support these vulnerable individuals.

NN and LP both sought to challenge the Home Office’s decision to end their support. But, more than this, they sought to challenge the underlying policy ending their support, arguing that it is in breach of the United Kingdom’s obligations to support victims of human trafficking and slavery.

Challenging the lawfulness of a policy takes a long time, however. And neither NN nor LP had time to spare – they would be stripped of their support arrangements after 45 days. They therefore sought an order from the Court that, while the lawfulness of the policy was being considered by the Courts, neither their support, nor the support of any other victims of trafficking or slavery in the United Kingdom, could be stopped simply owing to this policy – given that is potentially unlawful.


A SERIOUS RISK OF IRREPARABLE HARM

At a hearing on 10 April, the Court found that there was a “serious risk of irreparable harm to a significant number of vulnerable victims of slavery and trafficking if their support were to end after 45 days”. In witness statements from support providers before the Court, the negative effect that the ‘cliff-edge’ drop in support can have on victims was outlined:

"The 45-day deadline for support ending can be very daunting for victims. Having built a relationship with their key worker, having felt safe and secure. Having received support to access the care that is needed, the prospect of that support no longer being there is a blow…The knowledge to victims that the one-to-one relationship that they have built with their support [worker] is coming to an end often causes great anxiety."

                Rachel Collins-White of Unseen UK, in her witness statement before the Court

The Home Office had argued that there was a policy by which support workers could request a brief extension of support for victims, and therefore this meant that there was little risk of harm. However, the Judge rejected this assertion, finding that there is no published policy regarding these extensions, that in practice few extensions were requested and there is little transparency about how such requests are decided by the Home Office. In LP’s case, an extension request had already been rejected.


IMPACT

Owing to the serious risk of irreparable harm to a significant number of victims of trafficking and slavery, the Court ordered that the Home Office cannot rely purely on its ‘45-day rule’ policy to cease the support that a victim is receiving, for the time being. This is to be the case until the lawfulness of the policy is decided in a hearing in July, when the Court will decide whether the Home Office has an ongoing obligation to support victims, as NN and LP argue.

In the meantime, victims who are receiving support will continue to receive it, unless either they or their support worker decide that they no longer require it. This means that, for the time being, a barrier has been put before the cliff-edge.

 

LEGAL TEAM  

The Claimants are represented by Director, Ahmed Aydeed and Caseworkers Karen Staunton and Harvey Slade of the Birmingham Public Law department at Duncan Lewis, who have instructed Chris Buttler and Zoe McCallum of Matrix Chambers, and Miranda Butler of Garden Court Chambers.

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