In the spotlight: the UK’s human rights and modern slavery record under review

04 November 2022

In our latest blog, Jo Baker, International Advocacy Manager, takes a look at the UN’s five-year human rights reviews, which will spotlight the UK in 2022.

Image credit: Melinda Nagy, via Shutterstock.

Every five years, the UK has a human rights health check at the United Nations, performed by other countries, and known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The review is one way to make sure that countries are not “all talk, no action” on human rights.

During the UK’s last review, over twenty countries applauded the government for its “leadership on human trafficking and modern slavery” as a result of its the Modern Slavery Act. It was praised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the “enhanced protection” it gave victims. The UK government then committed to further protecting and supporting victims of trafficking, accepting over ten related recommendations.

Five years later, the context looks very different.

Modern slavery has been reclassified as an issue of immigration, it is ever harder for victims to be identified and supported, and the Home Office is pointing to alleged abuse in the system without providing any evidence. We continue to urge the government to stop conflating immigration enforcement with modern slavery.

The UK must stick to its promises and global commitments to support victims, in line with human rights standards.

Each UN Member State undergoes a UPR every five years.

This is informed by a report from the government on how it’s meeting its last set of commitments, official UN expert reports from that period, and reports from civil society. The reviews cover the full range of human rights, from labour rights to anti-discrimination.

The UPR was designed to advance interstate dialogue: Member States ask questions and make recommendations on favoured issues, guided by human rights law, in this unique peer-review process. They are also influenced by evidence presented by civil society organisations such as Anti-SIavery International, particularly when many groups are clearly making the same points. It is common for other countries to publicly criticise another country’s human rights record, such as with China’s most recent UPR. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, registered concern about Rwanda’s record in early 2021, urging greater support for victims of trafficking.

The reviewed country has six months to respond to all questions and recommendations. The country in question either ‘supports’ (accepts) or ‘notes’ (doesn’t accept) recommendations, and there are often a few hundred.

For the next five years, civil society then plays an important role in reminding the government regularly about the commitments it made and challenging those that it rejected. There will also be a mid-term ‘check in’ with the UN, that we’ll be feeding into.


What do we think other countries will say?

We expect governments to raise concerns about the UK’s backslide on protections for modern slavery victims and on policies that make more people vulnerable – such as those relating to overseas domestic workers.

Although a huge range of issues were raised by UN member countries at the last review, there was a focus on the implications of repealing the Human Rights Act in favour of the new Bill of Rights.

Additionally, they touched on issues of racism and discrimination – including hate crime against minorities and incitement in the British media – the human rights impact of counter-terrorism measures, the situation of migrants, and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Switzerland has already put on the record that it will ask about a time limit on immigration and detention, specifically relating to the Nationality and Borders Act.

What do we think?

The UK: failing to protect

Image credit: Joseph, via Shutterstock.

Survivors of modern slavery can’t be protected unless they’re identified. Yet right now UK law and policy are being re-designed to remove some people arriving in the UK much more quickly. The cruel forced removals programme to Rwanda will mean that some people could be targeted for removal before their case has even been understood.

The government is seemingly raising the threshold for a victim to be accepted into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – a framework for identifying and protecting victims of trafficking. Cases are now considered less credible if they are not disclosed early enough, which poorly understands the nature of trauma

Survivors with a criminal conviction carrying anything over a 12-month sentence can now be barred from accessing support. This shows a dangerous misunderstanding of the exploitation faced by victims: as, according to the Home Office’s own data from 2021, a significant proportion of potential trafficking victims in 2021 were forced to commit crimes.

Even though around 90% of people who have been through the NRM in recent years have been given a ‘conclusive grounds’ decision by the Home Office – demonstrating that they have been confirmed as a victim of slavery – the government has been trying to paint modern slavery laws as an avenue open to abuse. This may leave many victims too scared to apply, for fear of not being believed.

UK provisions: failing to support

Image credit: Microgen, via Shutterstock.

The NRM decides a person’s entitlement to vital support. Yet as highlighted, too many survivors are failing to be identified or referred into the NRM in the first place. This is partly because too few NGOs are permitted to make referrals. The survivors that do make it into the NRM then experience unimaginable delays during the process, requiring that they live off subsistence payments.

The UK Government’s own data confirms that on average it took 339 days to get from the initial decision to a ‘conclusive grounds’ decision in 2020 and a recent Sky News investigation demonstrated this was now 553 days.

Yet even after this, the government is nowhere near providing adequate support for survivors.

Victims still report considerable difficulties in accessing the services they’re entitled to, from finding somewhere to live, accessing a doctor and counselling, or getting financial support and legal help.

The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group – which we Chair – confirmed this earlier in 2022, releasing a report on survivors’ experience of recovery support, led by survivors. The report showed that every participant in the survey reported experiencing destitution.

Moving forward: our message

In solidarity with victims of modern slavery, we are committed to stopping the UK government from going back on its pledges. We urge the government to step up its commitment to human rights, and to deliver on its promises to support victims and prevent modern slavery.

We’ll be increasing the pressure at the UPR on 10 November with our partners, as well as shedding light on other vital slavery-related issues: from the UK’s treatment of migrant domestic workers, to holding companies to better account on supply chain slavery. In the months following the UPR we will continue to remind the government of its commitments and shine a spotlight on any actions taken.

As our Chief Executive said in the Independent: “The government needs to honestly listen to survivors and safeguard them against future abuse, not use them as pawns in a game of hostile rhetoric.”

This is the message we’ll be taking to the UN.