By Sonia Elks
LONDON, July 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — British lawmakers urged the government to stop detaining victims of trafficking under immigration powers on Tuesday, as official data showed more than 500 suspected slaves were held last year.
Politicians and anti-slavery activists said immigration officials were failing to adequately support those escaping slavery and risked adding to their trauma by locking them up.
"The Home Office needs to stop detaining survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence immediately," opposition lawmaker Jess Phillips said in a parliamentary debate.
The Home Office, Britain's interior ministry, said no one who claimed they had been trafficked would be required to leave the country while their case was being considered, and that a victim's status was considered when deciding immigration cases.
"Detention is an important part of the immigration system – but it must be fair, dignified, and protect the most vulnerable," a spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We have made significant improvements to our approach in recent years, but remain committed to going further."
People who are recognised as likely victims of modern slavery are entitled to a package of support including housing, counselling, and some living costs while their case is assessed under Britain's National Referral Mechanism (NRM) scheme.
However, victims of trafficking do not have any automatic entitlement to remain in Britain and they can be detained in some circumstances in order to carry out their removal.
A total of 507 people were formally recognised as probable slavery victims by NRM officials either before they were first detained or while being held in 2018, showed a report by data project After Exploitation.
The organisation obtained the data from the Home Office through Freedom of Information requests.
In all, 2,726 people were recognised as likely slavery victims in 2017 — the most recent official data available — suggesting up to a fifth of them had been held under immigration rules at some point, according to the report's authors.
Phillips said the figure only related to those acknowledged as likely victims by the NRM, meaning the figure was "just the tip of the iceberg" of slavery victims held in detention.
Charities providing support in detention centres report that vulnerable people often lack adequate access to healthcare, mental health support, and legal services, the After Exploitation report said, putting slavery victims at risk of further harm.
The Home Office said 479 people were already in detention when they were officially recognised as probable slavery victims, and nearly 90% were then released within a week.
The data showed officials had either allowed known potential victims to be detained or had failed to recognise the signs of trafficking, the report said.
It called for anyone who was referred to the NRM to be automatically released from detention.
"All too often victims of trafficking are perceived as immigration offenders rather than victims," said Pierre Makhlouf, assistant director at charity Bail for Immigration Detainees, in response to the report.
At least 13,000 people in Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude. Police say the true figure could be in the tens of thousands.
(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Claire Cozens and Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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