The Home Office is planning to take “a scythe” to protections currently offered to trafficking victims in Scotland – including sexually exploited women and children – with its new migration bill, campaigners and lawyers have warned.
The bill, which could see trafficking survivors detained indefinitely or deported to Rwanda, was a “gift to traffickers”, they claimed and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. They urged the Scottish Government to take legal advice on the role it would be forced to play.
Currently, the Scottish Government offers suspected trafficking victims safe accommodation, and support from agencies including Migrant Help and the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance (TARA), which works with sexually exploited women. Many go on to claim asylum because of the risk posed by traffickers if they return to their countries of origin.
But under new rules laid down by the UK Government – expected to become law this summer – the Scottish Government would not be allowed to offer suspected trafficking victims support, either before they had a “reasonable grounds” decision to suspect they were a trafficking survivor, or after a 90 day grace period.
Even when entitled to support, including a case worker, counselling, legal advice and a safe house in Scotland, the Home Office could detain trafficked women or children at any time, and potentially deport adult victims to Rwanda, unless they were cooperating with an investigation into their traffickers.
The Home Office insists it can deliver the bill in a way that is compatible with its human rights obligations. But lawyers said they were “incredulous” at the suggestion.
Andy Sirel, legal director and partner of Just Right Scotland said the migration bill was “stripping away a cornerstone of the Scottish Government’s positive obligation to support and protect victims of trafficking”.
“This is Westminster compelling, in some circumstances, the Scottish administration to violate the European Convention on Human Rights. And that has a significant constitutional impact as well as a human one,” he added.
“I think the Scottish Government needs to consider legal advice. This is coming at the worst possible time because right now the Scottish Government is renewing its anti-trafficking strategy and looking to set a new one. This bill blows a hole in the middle of it.”
Albanians, including women and children who have been sexually exploited, will now be able to be returned, Sirel said, and will not be allowed to make an asylum application, although 85 per cent of those who had been doing so earlier this year were found to have grounds to have their request for refugee protection granted.
Others will be subject to being deported to Rwanda – the only other country the UK currently has a deportation agreement with – whatever their country of origin.
Sirel added: “When you are offered no alternative to the exploitation, why would you come forward to seek help from authorities or the police?
“It’s creating low hanging fruit for organised crime and traffickers when the very purpose of the bill according to the UK Government is to break the business model of traffickers. It’s extraordinary to think that the consequences are doing the exact opposite.”
A recent freedom of information request revealed 1,400 trafficking victims had been identified in Scotland from January 2020 to October 2022, with the numbers rising year-on-year.
These included people held for domestic servitude, others forced into cannabis cultivation, as well as sexual exploitation. Some 280 of the victims were under-18. However, prosecutions are rare.
Graham O’Neill, policy manager of Scottish Refugee Council claimed trafficking survivors were “being ruthlessly recategorised in law as criminal offenders” instead of victims “needing our safety and support”.
“By the nature of their exploitation trafficking survivors will have been compelled to arrive ‘irregularly’ to then be exploited by organised crime,” he said. “That exploitation includes a woman being raped frequently in commercial sex flats or a young Vietnamese man being confined to dangerous cannabis production.”
Those judged to have arrived irregularly will be stripped of accommodation and financial support and have no access to counselling, legal advice or interpreting help, though these are currently rights provided by Scottish trafficking law.
“That is why Scottish Ministers must act with their own identification and decision system through which they decide who gets trafficking support, not the Home Secretary,” O’Neill added.
The illegal migration bill reached committee stage last week [27 March] with 89 pages worth of amendments lodged not only by Labour and the SNP, but also by Tory MPs.
Alison Thewliss, MP for Glasgow Central, said: “The UK government’s approach to asylum seekers has been inhumane and cruel for decades, but this latest piece of legislation really does take things to a whole new level.
“Suella Braverman [the Home Secretary] is taking the extraordinary step of ignoring her obligations under the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as ripping the Modern Slavery Act protections for victims of trafficking. Some survivors of trafficking have called this bill a “gift to traffickers”.
“Scotland should not be forced to accept this callous bill, nor should they be left with no choice but to remove their own legislation for the UK Tory Government’s shameful legislation.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government declined to comment when asked if it would take legal advice but they added that it would continue to do all it can within devolved powers to protect communities and support people”.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Modern slavery remains a barbaric crime which we are committed to stamping out and we continue to support thousands of genuine victims every year.
“The Illegal Migration Bill will change the law so that if someone who arrives in the UK illegally is identified as a potential victim of modern slavery or human trafficking, we will ensure they are safely returned home or to another safe country.”
Cover image thanks to mmg1design/iStock