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12 July 2022

How the Home Office detained thousands of potential trafficking victims

Even when people are referred to the UK’s modern slavery framework, they may still be held.

By Katharine Swindells

The British Olympic athlete Mo Farah revealed yesterday (11 July) that he was trafficked to the UK as a child and forced to work as a domestic servant. In the upcoming BBC documentary The Real Mo Farah, Farah shares that his real name is Hussein Abdi Kahin, and Mohamed Farah was the name given to him when he was brought to the UK from Djibouti at the age of nine.

Organisations campaigning on trafficking and modern slavery say Farah’s story shows how difficult it is for survivors of modern slavery to come forward, and how big the barriers they face to accessing support are. The Nationality and Borders Act passed this year, campaigners say, will raise the threshold for evidence required by victims, penalise victims who do not disclose quickly enough, and further restrict access to support, such as safe housing or counselling.

“I think one of the reasons it’s so heartening that Mo Farah’s come forward is he has really illustrated how difficult it is to disclose straight away,” said Maya Esslemont, the director of After Exploitation, which works to ensure transparency in the way survivors of modern slavery and trafficking are treated by the UK government.

“It shows how scary it is to come forward and disclose this information, often for fear of not being believed,” she continued. “The fact that it takes so long for people to disclose trafficking is very, very common. If you have a hostile system where the bureaucracy is set up to deny survivors translators or advocates, and assume disbelief, it is going to discourage more people from coming forward.”

Research by After Exploitation and Women for Refugee Women found that even when people are referred to Britain’s modern slavery framework, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) as a suspected victim of trafficking, they may still face denial of support or even detainment.

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Data obtained from a Home Office freedom of information request by After Exploitation shows that between 1 January 2019 and 20 September 2020, the Home Office detained 4,102 people in the NRM system, plus a further 938 who would be referred after their period of detention.

Of that 4,102, almost 3,000 were considered “potential victims”, which means they have a right to “assistance and support” under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. Almost 200 are confirmed as victims of trafficking, and After Exploitation estimates another 1,457 of the potential victims will later be confirmed.

[See also: Exclusive: Police refer hundreds of UK crime victims for deportation each month]

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