Home Office’s ‘hostile environment on steroids’ sees failure to check detained migrants for signs of slavery and trafficking

The Government is failing to screen thousands of detained migrants for signs of modern slavery and trafficking, including children, with Home Office staff not giving potential victims the opportunity to report their ordeal.

One expert says the many missed opportunities to identify and investigate links to exploitation demonstrates a lack of political will to tackle the issue, despite strong rhetoric from the Government.  

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Two reports published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons on Border Force-run facilities around the UK found staff are not uniformly carrying out necessary interviews to determine if detainees are modern slavery victims.

An unannounced inspection in September of facilities processing migrants arriving primarily via small-boat crossings also raised concerns about staff failing to report trafficking concerns through the modern slavery pathway, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

The reports make multiple references to abridged screening interviews, often taking place too late, and without privacy or adequate interpretation support. 

The Inspectorate found staff “had not reported any modern slavery concerns”, while the Home Office could not provide follow-up data on any NRM referrals made during a period when more than 2,000 people passed through two of the facilities inspected

Safeguarding risks

The Inspectorate told JPI Media its report showed “a significant number of people were not given a full screening interview” over the summer period when channel crossings reached a high. This, it said, could mean that ‘vulnerabilities and safeguarding risks’ were missed. 

Andrew Wallis, chief executive officer of charity Unseen, says “it’s really important that we do screen correctly” in these facilities, so that cases of modern slavery can be identified and investigated.

The High Court also weighed in on the issue late last year, after three potential trafficking victims were detained and almost deported without the opportunity to disclose safeguarding issues.

In a ruling, Justice Fordham said: “It is strongly arguable that the Home Secretary is acting unlawfully in curtailing asylum screening interviews by asking a narrower set of questions than those that are identified in the published policy guidance.”

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He added: “There is, in my judgment, a serious risk of injustice and irreversible harm from this question continuing to be unasked and unanswered.”

Emily Kenway, policy expert and author of The Truth about Modern Slavery, said the failures demonstrate a lack of political will to tackle trafficking, and tunnel vision on immigration.

“Immigration policy trumps concern about modern slavery every time,” she said. “Wherever it's a question of which one of those things wins, it will always be the hostile environment approach to immigration.”

In a letter sent to the Home Affairs Select Committee in January, Director General of UK Visas and Immigration, Abi Tierney, said some questions had been added back into the interviews, but that full screenings were still not taking place. 

A document published by the Home Office in response to the Inspectorate’s reports does not reference modern slavery concerns, or any measures being introduced in response.

“Hostile environment on steroids”

The document does refer to more deterrent measures at borders, which Mr Wallis fears is symptomatic of the Government’s “hostile environment on steroids” approach, which is pursued to the detriment of exploitation victims. 

There is evidence to suggest that increasing border security does little to dissuade desperate migrants attempting to travel to Europe. 

A UN Development Programme report found that 93 per cent of migrants travelling from Africa to Europe experienced danger en route, but just 2 per cent said this would have discouraged them if they had known beforehand.

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However, those working with slavery victims on the ground in the UK warn the hostile environment and threat of deportation is leveraged by traffickers to dissuade victims speaking up – making it easier to exploit them.

Guidance ranking priorities for social workers based at the Kent Intake Unit in Dover states that “age assessment” should be “primary objective one,” with staff told to focus on “assessing the ages of those seeking asylum who claim to be children”.

Welfare concerns, such as “assisting” with NRM referrals, are ranked as “primary objective two”, while “general safeguarding assistance” is listed as a secondary objective, to be carried out “subject to having spare capacity”.

"A massive problem"

Anti-slavery campaigners have long highlighted problems with the Home Office’s approach, with Ms Kenway warning there is “a massive problem with detention centres”. 

“There's lots of evidence that the system which is meant to flag that somebody may have been a victim of various types of crime, including trafficking, but also torture, for example, isn't working,” she said.

“There are many people who are in immigration centres today who have been severely and horrifically exploited in the UK, and that have not been interviewed appropriately.”

In 2019 a freedom of information (FOI) request revealed that 506 people being held in migrant detention facilities were potential victims of modern slavery. 

It came after ministers stated on several occasions in the House of Commons that the Home Office did not collect or store that data. 

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Ministers have since said they did not mislead Parliament by saying there is no “central record” of the figures, because those cited in the FOI came from the “live Home Office case information database” rather than centrally published datasets.

Mr Wallis believes the Government is afraid to adequately screen all migrants who arrive in the UK, as too many would be found to be victims. Some experts believe thorough interviews would reveal a majority of detainees have suffered exploitation.

The Home Office acknowledged that migrants arriving via clandestine routes were at greater risk from people traffickers and screening was of particular importance.

A spokesperson said: “We take the welfare of people in our care extremely seriously and protecting people from abuse and exploitation is a top priority for this government.

“Identifying vulnerabilities is an integral part of the asylum screening process.

“Specific questions in the screening interview are designed to identify any safeguarding issues.

“All of our staff are also duty-bound to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.”