By Lily Sparks and Lucrezia Bosio
Hundreds of potential human trafficking survivors in the UK have been denied financial support due to new measures brought in during lockdown. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is the system through which potential trafficking victims are assessed and supported in the UK in accordance with the Modern Slavery Act of 2015. ‘Potential victims’ are referred to the NRM and their claim assessed by the Home Office during which time they are provided with limited financial and practical support.
For this article, ‘potential victims’ will be referred to as survivors. Often survivors of human trafficking will simultaneously be seeking asylum to fleeing danger in their home country. Therefore, they will be claiming asylum under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, whilst also awaiting a decision from the NRM.
Previously, survivors were entitled to £35 per week due to their outstanding NRM claim or £27.25 per week if they were in receipt of asylum support. This financial support is the only support offered to these survivors awaiting a decision. It is evident that this financial support is entirely unsuited to covering the everyday costs of survivors and their dependents – transport, food, toiletries etc. Survivors are often housed in accommodation far from city centres and struggle to pay public transport costs.
Aside from the issues around finances, the Home Office consistently fails to meet its own deadline of 45 days to make a decision[i] instead, leaving survivors in limbo for up to two years awaiting a decision[ii], and in some known cases for as long as three years. During this time, survivors are still not permitted to work, and they need to survive on the minimal support offered by the Home Office. Delays have been further exacerbated due to COVID-19 related backlogs.
Conditions during COVID-19 Lockdown
Further issues experience by survivors during lockdown is the lack of facilities offered for their wellbeing. Firstly, there is no internet access in asylum accommodation, leaving both survivors of trafficking and vulnerable asylum seekers extremely isolated and unable to engage with educational opportunities or keep in contact with social circles.
This also means that many survivors were unable to follow English classes online, making it even more difficult for them to integrate into society. Secondly, the accommodation itself is often not adequate living space. Survivors are kept in overcrowded housing with problems such as rat infestations, and no efficient ways to solve these problems.
Furthermore, before being placed in accommodation, survivors are not notified of the location until a few days before the move. Therefore, they are often separated from their family, friends, and their own support network, without any notice. Thus, they must start from the beginning. Delays in the system have further left many living in ‘emergency’ accommodation for months on end.
These are often hotels or B&Bs where survivors are provided with individual rooms but expected to eat in dining halls and share bathrooms, therefore not protecting them against the spread of COVID-19. This is also extremely problematic as these survivors have lived through many traumatic events, and consequently sharing communal areas with strangers, hence, has a strong detrimental effect on their mental health.
Withdrawal of Financial Support for Survivors
In July of this year, with no warning, the Home Office announced that survivors in emergency accommodation would no longer be entitled to any financial support.[iii] They claim that the accommodation is catered and that other resources will be provided, meaning that survivors’ basic needs will be met, therefore they do not require financial support. This change has caused huge distress for already vulnerable survivors, and many fear that it will exacerbate the risk of being re-trafficked.
Being unable to pay for any transport costs, survivors have stuck in accommodation often very isolated areas. It is hugely detrimental to the recovery and mental health of survivors to take away the limited independence that financial support had provided them and fails to recognise their need for extra support owing to their traumatic past.
Although the Home Office claims to be catering to all of the applicants’ needs in such situations, this is often not the case. There have been different examples of mothers who, without warning, were unable to pay for nappies and milk for their babies, leaving them without access to basic resources. In other cases, clients were unable to eat the food provided due to severe medical problems that require a special diet.
Although the Home Office were notified of this they failed to cater to the medical requirements of those in question, leaving them going hungry. Moreover, the Home Office failed to provide transport or travel cards as required, leaving survivors stranded in isolated areas of the country.
Several legal firms are challenging the Home Office on the decision to remove financial support from survivors. Duncan Lewis was successful in requiring that support be reinstated for several of its clients, and they are now looking to challenge the wider decision. It is essential to the recovery of survivors of Modern Slavery in the UK that financial support is reinstated to all.
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.