Dr Gordon Macdonald: Love thy neighbour with compassion for migrants and modern slavery victims

Dr Gordon Macdonald is parliamentary officer of CARE for Scotland.
Dr Gordon Macdonald is parliamentary officer of CARE for Scotland.
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There is a temptation to turn a blind eye to large-scale tragedies and carry on with our everyday lives.

For example, in Syria civilians are facing an ongoing and intractable civil war with mass atrocities and it is remains difficult to know where to start in responding to that crisis.

Similarly, how do we begin to address how we support the ­massive flows of migrants streaming into Southern Europe as they flee war, poverty and insecurity, with ­hundreds drowning each year in the Mediterranean.

Closer to home, the increasing numbers of human trafficking ­victims that are being identified each year suggests that we are still ­struggling to win the battle to prevent people being exploited through slavery, ­sexual exploitation and forced labour in Scotland.

Faced with such monumental ­challenges, it is important that we do not lose our compassion. ­Compassion is one of the four ideals engraved on the mace of the Scottish Parliament which we wish our MSPs to possess. The other three are ­wisdom, justice and integrity. It involves having sympathy for, and concern about, those who suffer or are ­disadvantaged and drawing alongside them to help to alleviate their ­suffering. It is most often ­motivated by a deep sense of love for others.

Compassion is something that we should prioritise as we consider how to respond to the Syrian crisis, the refugee and migrant crisis around Europe and it is also an attitude we need when we respond to the ­growing problem of human trafficking.

The latest National Crime Agency (NCA) statistics for the United Kingdom make for a sobering read. 5145 potential victims of human trafficking were entered on the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in 2017; a 35 per cent increase on 2016 (the NRM is a process that the UK uses to formally ascertain whether someone has been a victim of human ­trafficking).

Albanian and Vietnamese nationals remain the most commonly reported victims. The NCA also ­estimates that there are at least 10,000 to 13,000 ­victims of human trafficking in the UK but admits that this is very likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

­Compassion in the case of human trafficking means prioritising the ­victims’ needs. A legal duty to ­provide financial and other ­support to ­victims was introduced in Scotland in 2015.

Recently, the Scottish Government extended the period during which this support will be made available from 45 days to 90 days. This move makes Scotland the leader in the UK in terms of providing initial support to victims of human trafficking and is a welcome development to help those who have been trafficked and exploited.

Legislation is also being considered at Westminster that would introduce a statutory duty to provide such ­support in England and Wales.

However, there remains a problem. Immigration rules mean that those who are victims of human trafficking can face deportation even as their victim status is being formally ­recognised. There is a need to ensure that the right to remain in the UK is extended for all victims of human trafficking.

This would give people adequate time to recover from the trauma they have experienced. It would also help to provide the security necessary to encourage victims to testify against those who have exploited them, increasing the likelihood of successful prosecutions of organised crime gangs.

The Modern Slavery (Victim ­Support) Bill being brought forward by Lord McColl in Westminster will alleviate this problem by extending the period of leave to remain in the UK for up to 12 months for all recognised victims of human trafficking.

The Bill is supported by leading anti-trafficking charities and businesses. At the moment Lord McColl’s Bill does not extend this right to remain to victims in Scotland and Northern Ireland but the governing authorities will be given an opportunity by ­Westminster to opt-in to the relevant parts of the Bill if it becomes law. If they do, then victims in all parts of the UK could benefit.

The Bible is clear that compassion is a characteristic of God’s nature. It also makes clear that our religious rituals and practices are of no ­value if they are not accompanied by ­genuine compassion for others. It is good that in Scotland we are exercising compassion by extending the initial support period for victims of human ­trafficking. However, Lord McColl’s Bill highlights that there is much more that can be done.

To find out more about the ­Modern Slavery (Victim ­Support) Bill go to www.freeforgood.org.uk

Dr Gordon Macdonald is parliamentary officer of CARE for Scotland.