Former prime minister Theresa May delivered a devastating verdict on the Government’s new small boats bill yesterday, arguing that it would deny support to victims of modern slavery who have been trafficked to the UK.
Under the Bill, anyone who comes into Britain via illegal means will not have access to the country’s anti-modern slavery laws, which were introduced by Mrs May during her premiership.
But she suggested there was not enough evidence about the link between modern slavery and small boats to bring about such a ban.
The Government has claimed that the modern slavery system is being “gamed” and the bill will clamp down on abuse. So what’s going on?
Here, i fact checks the key claims about modern slavery laws and whether these impact small boat crossings.
What did Theresa May say?
Mrs May criticised the new Illegal Migration Bill, saying it would “remove support from the victims of trafficking and modern slavery” and make them “collateral damage”.
The former PM also said that the Government had not provided enough evidence about the link between modern slavery and small boats, saying: “Nobody wants to see our world-leading legislation being abused, but the Government have to set out the clear evidence if they are saying that there is a link between [The Modern Slavery Act] and the small boats, and so far I have not seen that evidence.”
“As it currently stands, we are shutting the door to victims who are being trafficked into slavery into the UK. The Home Office knows this bill means that genuine victims of modern slavery will be denied support,” she said.
Will the bill make it harder for modern slavery victims to get help?
Under the Bill, anyone who comes into Britain via illegal means will not have access to the UK’s anti-modern slavery protections, which were introduced by Mrs May during her time in No10.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the bill would “disqualify illegal entrants from using modern slavery rules to prevent removal”.
The legislation would mean that potential or confirmed victims of trafficking or modern slavery would no longer have a recovery period during which they can’t be removed, the support previously afforded or temporary leave to remain while their claims are being assessed. Individuals cooperating with an investigation or criminal proceedings would be exempt from this.
The bill states that “protections and entitlements to assistance and support, which are available to victims of modern slavery or human trafficking [will] not to apply to persons who are subject to removal under this act”, having arrived in the UK via a small boat.
Jamie Fookes, of Anti-Slavery International, said that the bill would “block anyone arriving irregularly from accessing the mechanisms of safety through which people can escape exploitation including the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the only statutory system to identify, support and protect victims of human trafficking in the UK.
“It equates to a blanket ban for any victim of trafficking who enters the UK in what the government deems to be the ‘wrong way’ from accessing safety, and will result in the long-term detention of victims and their removal to unsafe countries. It therefore provides traffickers leverage to hold victims in exploitation.”
Can small boats arrivals use modern slavery claims to stay in the UK?
People who claim to be victims of modern slavery do not automatically get the right to stay in the UK – in fact, they have to go through many checks by the Home Office before being allowed to stay.
Mr Fookes said that claiming modern slavery did not automatically mean someone could stay in the UK, and that any claims are assessed repeatedly by the Home Office before the individual is granted leave.
“Claims that the system is being abused don’t chime with how the system works. You can’t refer yourself to the NRM – it has to be a first responder, the majority of which are direct Home Office employees like police and border guards. Then the Home Office makes a reasonable grounds decision at which point individuals then wait in the system, often for more than 500 days, before getting a conclusive decision from the Home Office. Only then can someone apply to be considered for leave, and still it is not automatic,” he said.
Government statistics also reveal that between January and September 2022, 65 per cent of people who were detained to be deported after arriving on a small boat were referred as possible victims of modern slavery to the NRM by a first responder. This is down from 73 per cent in 2021.
Just 15 per cent of people in the NRM came to the UK via small boats.
Is the modern slavery system being gamed?
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has claimed that the modern slavery scheme is being “abused by people gaming the system”.
But Government statistics suggest the vast majority of referrals made to the NRM are found to be legitimate, indicating that if there is abuse in the system, it is not widespread.
The latest Government statistics show that in 2022, 88 per cent of initial Home Office decisions on modern slavery claims in the NRM (to determine if there are reasonable grounds to believe the individual is a modern slavery victim) and 89 per cent of final decisions by the Home Office (to determine if there are conclusive grounds) were positive.
Rebecca Stevenson, who works to combat modern slavery with the charity Care, said: “The NRM statistics suggest that the system may not be being abused to the extent that the government claims.”
“A person can’t self refer to the NRM, they need to be referred to by a first responder following criteria set by the Government. Then there is a reasonable grounds assessment and a conclusive grounds assessment, and after that they can apply for leave to remain in the UK – but this is not automatically granted,” she said.
“People on all sides of the political debate recognise that the small boats crisis needs to be addressed, but not at the expense of modern slavery victims, which is what this Bill will do.”
Mr Fookes, of Anti-Slavery, added: “The general attitude within the sector is that the Government’s rhetoric on modern slavery doesn’t reflect reality whatsoever.”
But the Government narrative has not always remained consistent about modern slavery.
Back in March 2021, the Government praised its modern slavery system, saying that the growing number of referrals proved that the system was working. But unveiling the new bill in the House of Commons, the Home Secretary suggested that the rising referrals showed the system was being gamed.
Modern slavery among Albanian arrivals
Suella Braverman has claimed that Albanians are crossing the channel alleging modern slavery but that “their claims of being trafficked are lies”. The National Crime Agency has said that some Albanian migrants falsely claim to be victims of trafficking, something Qirjako Qirko – the Albanian ambassador to the UK – has also stated.
But while some may be making false claims, Government statistics show that many Albanian asylum seekers are referred by professionals as possible victims of modern slavery.
Two-thirds of people detained for return since 2021 after arriving on small boats were Albanian nationals. More than 7 in 10 of those were then referred to the NRM by a first responder as a possible victim of modern slavery.
In total, 13 per cent of all Albanians – 1,719 people – who arrived in small boats were referred to the NRM – the highest figure for any country, according to the BBC.
Albanians are also the highest nationality group claiming asylum in the UK, and 49 per cent of their claims were granted last year.
Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has hit back at the rhetoric around Albanians in the UK, saying that the UK has been falsely targeting Albanians “as the cause of its crime and border problems” and attacking what he called the “insane” and “easy rhetoric”.
Mark Davies, from the Refugee Council, also warned it was “dangerous to assume all Albanians are falsifying modern slavery claims”, saying each case should be “given a fair assessment”.
“We know from our work that trafficking and exploitation are a problem for many from the country,” he added.