Victims of Slavery Shouldn't Be Detained in Prison-Like Settings

Hi Reader Friend,

I’m writing this from frustration and sadness about decisions made by the UK Home Office and Priti Patel (pictured above) this week so there is an obvious bias in my explanation of this issue, as you will see.

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Hope you are all well,


This week, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced changes to the UK’s immigration system that have horrified charities working with refugees and asylum seekers. Under new regulations, she has proposed tougher assessments to identify the ages of children, “swift” deportations of people that arrive “illegally”, limited family reunions, and more stringent granting of refugee statuses. Her decision follows 8,500 crossings on the English Channel from last year and 800 people that have made the journey in 2021. She said her actions will stop the abuses on our system and stop people smugglers from exploiting individuals wanting to cross the Channel to claim asylum in the UK.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants commented on this “shake-up” to immigration: “If Priti Patel was serious about protecting vulnerable people from dangerous journeys and exploitative traffickers, she would create a wide range of safe, legal routes for people to travel to the UK. But Patel is simply not capable of designing a system that protects vulnerable people. These proposals are an attack on the principles enshrined in the Refugee Convention.”

In addition to these changes, a new policy will make it harder for detained survivors of modern slavery to be released from detention centres. Although the government refused to record the number of trafficking victims detained, charities found that over 1,400 potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking were being detained in prison-like detention centres in the UK.  

Thomas was trafficked in several countries, even as a minor. For ten years, his traffickers toted him around – locking him up, beating him, cutting him with knives, and forcing him to work long hours with no pay. He was brought to the UK and forced to work in a house growing cannabis. Eventually, the police found him in the house and arrested him for the production of cannabis. Following a short prison sentence, the decision was made to deport Thomas. He was placed in detention under immigration powers, where he claimed asylum and was recognized as a victim of modern slavery. Despite the acknowledgement of his experience, he continued to be detained.

“Modern slavery is a deeply traumatising form of exploitation, which almost without exception features severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse,” Maya Esslemont of After Exploitation said. Detention centres are completely inappropriate spaces for victims of trauma – they are at risk of “longer-term psychological and physical illness as they are experiencing a second deprivation of liberty after being held in restrictive and abusive conditions by traffickers. Survivors should be able to access early intervention and support, not longer waits and more fights to access the entitlements they need.”

Even after being recognized as an “at-risk adult”, Thomas continued to be held in the detention centre. He was considered a risk of harm to the public because of his “crime” and since his removal out of the country was planned (which could last 16 weeks), they figured he should just stay put.

Changes passed through Parliament will expect exploited people to provide further evidence of ‘future harm’, via a medical professional, if they have a chance of being classed as too vulnerable for the detention centre. The changes were made using a negative ‘Statutory Instrument’, which bypasses any Parliamentary debate or scrutiny of the issue.

“It is unthinkable that such serious changes to the treatment of survivors, already made vulnerable by abuse, have been introduced without any real consultation or Parliamentary debate,” Esslemont said. “This policy will condemn more survivors to time behind bars, even when the Home Office recognises they have a legal right to support.”

Emma Ginn of Medical Justice are equally alarmed: “We are concerned that the proposed changes will result in more vulnerable survivors of trafficking being held in detention for longer periods.”

Unless an Early Day Motion is signed by MPs, the proposed changes will go forward. You can help! Write to your MP urging them to act quickly. There are now less than 30 days left to appeal these changes and protect vulnerable victims of trafficking and slavery in the UK.

Thomas was visited by a clinical psychologist and diagnosed with PTSD and depression. The psychologist concluded that his mental health was “significantly negatively impacted by his detention.”

Thomas shouldn’t have been held in a detention centre. He should have had safe housing, good meals, counselling, legal support, and medical interventions. Instead, he was arrested and kept tucked away, far from the support he needed.

The UK is establishing itself with a reputation after leaving the EU – one that doesn’t care about the wellbeing of international victims of slavery or asylum seekers.

But we can act.

Below are resources to get your voice heard.

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