Anti-Slavery Day: The “Illegal Migration” Act 2023 and its implications for survivors in the UK

October 18 is Anti-Slavery Day. It is a chance for us to come together, to learn, and to take action to achieve a world where everyone can live in freedom. Our Communications Manager, Jessica Turner, reflects on the ‘Illegal Migration’ Act and its implications for survivors of slavery in the UK.

Over the past year, we’ve been talking a lot about new policies and legislation in the UK – explaining just how dangerous they are for victims and survivors of modern slavery. Our supporters have been raising their voices, writing to MPs, signing petitions, organising fundraising activities and telling friends and families. Despite our collective action, the “Illegal Migration” Act recently passed into law, further raising the evidence threshold for victims and survivors. This means fewer people will be able to access the support they need.

This Anti-Slavery Day, we’re sharing a video that helps to articulate what we’ve been warning about with this Government’s recent policy updates. It helps explain how these new laws are already beginning to cause harm to people as they make the brave choice to seek help. Please share this video with your friends and family, and help us to grow the movement of people demanding that this Government fulfil its duty to support and protect victims and survivors.

This video is created in consultation with Jane Lasonder – ISTAC OSCE and Consultant Survivor Leader. 

Anti-Slavery Day is a time for us to reflect, and to look back on everything over the past year – both the progress and the setbacks. In truth, it’s been a challenging time for modern slavery victims, survivors, activists and campaigners in the UK, but we are emboldened and steadfast for the work ahead.

So what has changed in support for victims and survivors of modern slavery in the UK?

The UK Government pursued a hostile narrative on modern slavery

Over the past year or so, the Government has pursued a dangerous and hostile narrative on modern slavery, dragging the issue into an already toxic debate on immigration. The Government applied the rhetoric and narrative of the hostile immigration environment to modern slavery – laying the foundations for damaging legislation. Our CEO authored an opinion piece outlining the risks of this narrative. We’ve also worked with UN experts who called out the Government’s behaviour, and contributed to the Office for Statistics Regulation reprimanding the Home Office’s public claims and use of data. Ironically, all of this was taking place while the UN Human Rights Council was reviewing the UK’s human rights record.

New legislation has poked holes in an already weak Modern Slavery Act

Last month, our Parliamentary Officer Lucy Symington wrote a reflective blog that explored how some of the tensions that were baked into the Modern Slavery Act have enabled recent legislation to be particularly damaging to victims and survivors. As the Government dragged modern slavery into the hostile immigration debates, some powers of the Modern Slavery Act have been unpicked. Overall, these changes mean that more victims and survivors will be barred from completing the identification process, and accessing the support they need to recover.

The Nationality and Borders Act is already starting to have an impact on victims and survivors

This time last year – Anti-Slavery Day – the Nationality and Borders Act had already passed, and we were looking ahead, hopeful that the Government might commit to improving the Modern Slavery Act (as promised in the Queen’s speech). However, as the months passed, we realised there not only wouldn’t be improvements made to the Modern Slavery Act but instead, there would be a new and damaging Bill – the ‘Illegal Migration’ Bill (now Act).

We also started to see the impact of the Nationality and Borders Act take hold. Former Prime Minister Theresa May pointed to the negative impact that the Nationality and Borders Act was having on victims seeking support, pointing out alongside campaigners that it was letting perpetrators off the hook. However, the most shocking evidence of the negative impact of the Act comes from the most recent National Referral Mechanism statistics. These statistics demonstrate that there was a 16% drop in referrals of victims since the previous quarter, and that there were fewer positive decisions made. This is very likely to be a result of the Government’s heightened evidence thresholdwhich has since been found to be unlawful.

The “Illegal Migration” Act and the Rwanda Policy

The Rwanda Policy – which seeks to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda, regardless of whether they have been trafficked – has continued to be argued in the courts. While we await the final judgement, the threat looms over victims of modern slavery.

And the deeply damaging “Illegal Migration” Act passed into law. The UN refugee agency calls out the law as a breach of international law, and here’s a blog we wrote at the time outlining how dangerous the law will be for victims of modern slavery. So many dedicated individuals signed our petition, wrote to MPs and raised their voice to say that this was wrong. As a community we are strong. And while we might not have won this fight, we are energised to work together to secure better support for victims and survivors.

Rather than a safe place to recover, we will be finding survivors of modern slavery in immigration detention, including Bibby Stockholm. Regardless of their exploitation,

So where to next?

The UK Government has made a series of choices, it has chosen to distrust victims and survivors, it has chosen to raise the evidence threshold, it has allowed many people to be barred from support, and it has created a culture of disbelief. But, as our Parliamentary Officer points out, this does not have to continue. We don’t yet know what will come up over the next year, but we urge the Government to believe survivors, reduce the evidence threshold, and stop using policies of deterrence. Together, our movement has the power to make the change we need to see.

This Anti-Slavery Day, we ask you to join us in calling for dignity – and not detention – for survivors.