19 Oct 2020

The great setback

How Brexit and the Immigration Bill can undermine the last decade of modern slavery efforts in the UK

Campaign For The Citizens' Rights After Brexit In London
EU citizens in the UK together with British citizens in the EU and their supporters gather in Parliament Square in central London as part of ‘The Last Mile Citizens’ Lobby’ campaign. Photo Credit: Barcroft Media via Getty Images.

The United Kingdom is one of the world’s leading countries in the fight against modern slavery. Its pioneering Modern Slavery Act 2015 consolidated criminal offences of human trafficking, slavery, and forced labour into a single framework and introduced a modern slavery reporting mechanism for businesses. It also created an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner to promote good practice in the prevention, investigation and prosecution of modern slavery crimes, and victim-identification.

Walk Free has recognised the UK’s leading role in the fight against modern slavery regionally and globally in our recent Measurement Action Freedom report, which assessed government progress towards achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7.

Yet, this role will be greatly undermined by Brexit and its proposed Immigration Bill. As a result, the UK will abandon more than 50 EU agencies and directives, including the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive, and Eurojust and Europol that provide access to some of the world’s most advanced integrated criminal intelligence databases.

Several MPs, peers, legal experts, and human rights organisations have raised concerns about the Bill’s impact on disrupting criminal investigations, removing protections for victims, and aggravating vulnerability to exploitation for European Economic Area (EEA) migrants in the UK.

Supporting survivors

Under the Bill, survivors of modern slavery will see their rights diluted and protections removed. The Bill fails to provide key legal protections for victims of trafficking currently covered by the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive. For example, victims will lose protection against forced immigration removal during reflection and recovery periods. It is critical to implement victim protection provisions to mirror the EU Directive, such as the Modern Slavery Victim Support Bill.

The UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner also recently reported on some of the issues victims experienced when applying to the EU Settlement Scheme. These included issues making online applications and difficulties proving the length of time lived in the UK, due to lack of documentation.

Criminal justice

A No-Deal Brexit will have serious impacts on prosecution and criminal justice in the UK. Politico reports, from midnight on the 1 January 2021, British police, justice officials, and cybersecurity services will lose access to real-time information and key international databases on criminal records around Europe. Extradition that would normally take an average of 48 days under the European Arrest Warrant, may take a year or more. Naturally, this will undermine the investigation and prosecution of modern slavery crimes if the UK does not seek close alignment with EU instruments.

Coordination

By leaving the Eurojust and Europol memberships, the UK’s capacity to fight organised crime will be seriously impeded as these memberships are essential to transnational crime initiatives that combat terrorism, modern slavery, and human trafficking. To date, the UK has not made any significant provisions to replace them. Establishing an agreement with detailed provisions on cross-border cooperation in criminal matters in lieu of EU memberships is key to promote a coordinated response.

Addressing modern slavery risks

The Bill introduces a points-based immigration system that prioritises highly skilled workers over low skilled labour. Yet, EEA Migrants are over-represented in low paid sectors, which the Bill does not present mechanisms to replace. The same key workers who supported the British economy during the COVID-19 pandemic would not be eligible for a visa under the new system, particularly in health and care sectors. Additionally, the seasonal work visa predicted in the Bill is considered problematic.

In its Immigration Bill 2020: Second Reading Briefing NGO Focus on Labour Exploitation found, “the bill as it is currently formulated is omitting crucial policy changes and/or safeguards that would ensure migrant workers are able to come to the UK safely and with appropriate protection from vulnerability”.

The Bill must address a lack of protections, opportunities and safe migration routes for EEA migrant workers as restrictive immigration policies drive exploitative practices. The lack of long-term visa solutions and labour rights for EEA migrants in the UK will lead to an increase in the undocumented population, and will leave them vulnerable to modern slavery. While current estimates point to 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK with only three per cent identified, these policies are likely to lead to an increase in the number of victims.

Regulating Supply chains

The forthcoming EU Human Rights Due Diligence Legislation will ensure EU-wide legislation to regulate and monitor supply chains.

Despite the recent announcements to improve provisions under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, Brexit will mean the UK misses a critical opportunity for regional cooperation that would strengthen its existing legislation. The Immigration Bill that is required to fuel the Brexit process will greatly undermine modern slavery efforts in the UK. It is critical to make sure victims of modern slavery are not left unprotected, risks to exploitation for EEA workers are not exacerbated, and criminal justice and coordinated action are not affected.