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The UK Modern Slavery Act: Victim identification and care

Karen Anstiss, Bakhita House and Carole Murphy, St Mary's University

Protection of Victims

Ensuring the protection of victims of human trafficking is regarded as one of the most important aspects of the Modern Slavery Act (MSA). The focus on victim care, the intention to reduce harm caused by slavery and to improve support for victims has been welcomed, especially by first responders, including NGOs and law enforcement. Victim identification and care is also listed as the first priority in the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner's Strategy 2015-2017. This focus is highly commendable, long awaited and has been welcomed by experienced, committed individuals and groups who have campaigned for action in addressing this problem. Modern slavery and human trafficking (MSHT) is an enormous, escalating problem, and there is widespread agreement that urgent action is necessary to tackle it not only as a criminal issue, but also to consider the support needs of victims. The MSA has provided the initial impetus and the legal and strategic framework within which this should occur.

The Modern Slavery Act adopts the same 4P strategy as the UK government's approach to organised crime - Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare. But the human dimension of modern slavery perhaps makes it more relevant here. 'Prepare' refers to the intention to 'Reduce the harm caused by modern slavery through improved victim identification and enhanced support'. These two components - improving victim identification, and providing enhanced support for victims - although linked, require different approaches, qualities and skills, from various actors, and therefore pose challenges to effective implementation. The former sits within a framework of law enforcement and the criminal justice system, the latter within a holistic support and human rights system, requiring input from the voluntary sector, charities, NGOs, lawyers, and to a lesser extent, state institutions. Thus, victim identification and victim support cut across various sectors and demand responses from a range of specialists, with varying policies and levels of understanding that will impact on the type of service provided.

Victim identification

These distinctive frameworks present obstacles to providing a coherent approach to addressing the needs of 'victims'. In terms of victim identification, there are significant barriers to uncovering instances of this hidden, under researched and criminal activity. Gathering intelligence through state or other sources, for example NGOS, is often the first step in uncovering cases of MSHT. Numbers of victims identified within the UK, according to available statistics collected by the National Crime Agency, have been increasing year on year. Whereas previously, victims of sexual exploitation had been the main focus of attention, other forms of slavery and trafficking, for diverse activities including labour and criminal exploitation of adults and children alike, are increasingly common and more frequently exposed.

Although victims may be identified based on intelligence provided by the public or other agencies, law enforcement play a significant role in detection of cases, either through responding to intelligence or through proactive investigation. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority have recently expanded their remit, and other law enforcement units, such as the Modern Slavery and Kidnap Unit in the Met police, the Modern Slavery Unit in Manchester, as well as other innovative policing interventions developed over many years of commitment to combatting these issues are evident in Wales, Devon and Cornwall.

Joint investigation teams supported by Europol with UK and European forces have also played a critical role in exposing organised criminal gangs' exploitation of adults and children for various crimes including labour and sexual exploitation, and criminal activity including theft and cannabis farming. Modern slavery has also been exposed as a crime that is often 'hidden in plain sight' in car washes, nail bars, and garden paving.

However, even though the MSA encourages victims to come forward and give evidence without fear of being convicted for offences they were forced to commit (e.g. cannabis farming, forced pickpocketing, benefit fraud, soliciting), there are still cases in which 'victims' are not recognised as such and continue to be dealt with through the criminal justice system and are consequently criminalised. Although improvements in victim identification have occurred as awareness grows about MSHT, there is still much work to be done. Identification of victims relies on a clear, shared understanding about recognising indicators, as well as awareness of how organised crime groups coerce, threaten and abuse victims, and use them as scapegoats to facilitate their avoidance of the criminal justice system.

Overcoming those types of barriers is the first step in what is often a highly protracted journey for victims, once free from MSHT. Understanding this journey is necessary to identify the needs of victims, in order to comply with the requirement under the MSA to provide enhanced support. The increase in referrals to the NRM has implications for victim support. Demands for progressively distinct and specialist services will necessitate a skilled response and provision of facilities for vulnerable child victims, and adult men and women, which will require additional resources. Victim support needs are manifold and specialist input is necessary to ensure equity of support provision. Thus, evidence based responses are key to ensuring best practice.

Victim Support

Following identification, potential victims of MSHT are referred to services by a range of agencies including the Home Office, police, NGOs, legal services and others, alongside cases of self-referral. At this stage, potential victims are granted a 45-day recovery and reflection period during which time they will be provided with accommodation, subsistence and access to legal and medical services. If confirmed as a victim of MSHT they may be granted leave to remain. During this period, victims are accommodated in a safe house, usually provided by NGOs and the state. The Salvation Army hold the contract for the NRM housing and they subcontract out to various NGOs. In addition to the support offered by the state, safe houses often provide access to other types of assistance such as counselling, education, alternative therapies (e.g. meditation, acupuncture), nutrition advice and other forms of therapy. Each safe house will be guided by the ethos of the organisation, and will have developed its own protocols for supporting survivors of MSHT. There are no standard procedures for victim care, but both the state and voluntary sector have published guidelines, two of which are briefly summarised below.

What are the challenges?

Experts in victim care emphasise the importance of a holistic approach, taking account of work done on behalf of the client, including preparedness of staff through training and support, advocacy with external agencies, and provision of advice regarding access to legal services, compensation and financial support. Engaging with one or more agencies can be stressful and traumatising to victims. Barriers are often encountered in dealings with state institutions because of conflicts regarding immigration status, expectations of engagement with the criminal justice system as a witness, and sometimes perceptions of complicity communicated by inexperienced and untrained interviewers. Financial support is limited and restricts survivors' capacity to participate in support services, educational provision, voluntary work and engagement with other external agencies. The 45-day reflection and recovery period has been criticised for its inability to ensure ongoing support to extremely vulnerable and often traumatised people with a range of diverse support needs including in some cases those who have little English. 45 days is considered too short for survivors to adequately recover and develop skills necessary for independent living both within the UK and/or should they decide to return to their country of origin.

Other processes necessary for state functions can prove testing for survivors of MSHT. For example, testimony gathered following guidelines for interviews provided by the Crown Prosecution Service in Achieving Best Evidence (ABE) interviews for criminal proceedings may not be fit for purpose for other sectors such as UK Visas and Immigration. Discrepancies in accounts, which may come about due to trauma, memory issues as a consequence of psychological trauma or language use, can be used in legal settings to devalue victims' evidence. Survivors who have been smuggled into the country by their traffickers may not have identification documents, and even with identification documents, are less likely to be granted leave to remain. The perceived and often very real threat of expulsion should leave to remain not be granted can be a motivating factor in deciding to exit support services, increasing the risk of being re-trafficked. The outcome of the BREXIT negotiations may escalate the numbers of victims in this group, placing further strain on an already overloaded system.

The other aspect of this holistic system focuses on the effects of MSHT on the personal health and wellbeing of the client, including provision of a therapeutic environment and access to psychological, spiritual, physical and sexual health services. Trauma informed counselling may be offered but there are long waiting lists. Cuts to broader service funding, and dealing with the impact on survivors of engaging with external agencies that may be hostile, hostage to process and disbelieving of victims' accounts, further challenges the ability of services to provide adequate enhanced support. Despite Home Office guidelines, many staff are not sufficiently trained to deal with victims of MSHT, and may unintentionally exacerbate trauma and contribute further to victim/survivor shame.

Other challenges come from policy that may directly or inadvertently impact on victim care. Some of these include the most recent Mayoral Police and Crime Plan for London: A Safer City for all Londoners Police and Crime Plan 2017-2021 and the Immigration Act. Modern slavery needs to be acknowledged and treated as a priority within policy development across the board.

Proposed solutions

Evidence based responses are key to ensuring best practice.

The UK is regarded as a leader internationally in the fight to combat modern slavery. Expertise developed over many years is evident, especially within those sectors that have been at the forefront of victim identification and support for many years, including NGOs and some specialist units within police forces across the country. The Prime Minister established a Modern Slavery Task Force in 2016, which aims to improve detection, conviction and victim support. However, outside of this expertise, responses are often uneven, disjointed and under researched.

To improve victim identification, a robust response is necessary. The announcement of the Police Transformation Fund (PTF) in November 2016, will go some way towards achieving this. It includes the setting up of the Joint Slavery and Trafficking Analysis Centre (JSTAC) within the National Crime Agency, which will help build a better picture of the problem. New posts and units will be created, including regional analysts within Regional Organised Crime Units, who will also gather information from local police forces. Regional coordinators will provide tactical advice and support regional partnerships and one person will be based in Europol.

Alongside this, a review of the current state of play in the UK needs to be conducted based on discussions with key policy makers, practitioners and law enforcement officers to gain insight into what are considered the most effective methods of providing enhanced support to victims of MSHT. Understanding of these issues from the perspective of policymakers and practitioners is important in identifying how coherence and divergence in practice can impact on expected outcomes. From this evidence-based approach, improved understanding of best practice can be shared.

More broadly, partnership working and multi-agency working have been identified as critical to improvements in the care of victims/survivors. In the first instance, this should include a review of interview procedures with victims, presently undertaken on a number of occasions, by different agencies with diverse agendas, a process that contributes to increased trauma and stress for victims, and does not conform to understandings of 'enhanced support'. An analysis of how this process could be managed sensitively with respect to victims' human rights and dignity, whilst maintaining the integrity of the victim testimony/narrative to fulfil the requirements of the various agencies involved, could contribute to developing a coherent, effective multi agency approach. Representatives from diverse bodies could work in tandem to ensure the most effective outcome, with the victims' care at the centre of any proposed improvements.

Central to achieving an improved response, raising awareness more broadly and generally can be achieved through provision of training to key partners across the UK, based on sharing of existing knowledge and expertise. Excellent examples of good practice, acknowledged anecdotally or through presentations at conferences, roundtables and symposia, need to be brought together in one coherent framework. Effective use of the Police Transformation Fund could make a lasting impact by providing evidence based training, bringing together findings from discussions with all parties. Multi-agency panels should be established that include representatives from all relevant sectors to achieve coherence and promote best practice. Wider training, committed to improved understanding and shared unilaterally through rolling out of multi-agency specialist training, rather than training in silos, would truly transform the landscape. Ultimately though, if survivors of MSHT are to be adequately supported in a holistic manner that takes account of often multiple and complex needs, establishing centres of excellence for victim support needs to be sufficiently resourced. Policy development needs to take place within a framework that considers the evidence of what works for victims of MSHT.