I’ve been writing about immigration and asylum law for more than four years. One thing I’ve noticed since joining the sector is the uncertainty and changeability of many of its structures. Immigration law – like any other– is malleable. It is constantly being debated, redrafted and updated, with new legislations propositioned and pushed into effect all the time.
Unfortunately though, one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that the most vulnerable migrants — people who seek refuge in Britain — continue to be allowed to fall through the cracks. Since I began working for the Immigration Advice Service in 2016, I’ve seen and researched the impact fluctuating hostile immigration policies and governmental responses to the so-called migrant ‘crisis’ have had upon people who come to the UK in search of safety.
The migration process is difficult to navigate at the best of times, but it can be especially daunting for people who seek refuge here. These people have fled from living conditions most people would struggle to imagine.
While most asylum seekers have been subject to some form of human rights abuse in their home countries, women and girls are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. Many women who flee their home countries do so because they have experienced gender-based abuse at the hands of loved ones, family-members and members of their own communities. These can vary from domestic abuse and so-called ‘honour’-based abuse, to female-genital mutilation (FGM), sexual violence, and forced prostitution.
Because of this, women who seek asylum in the UK are both severely traumatised by their experiences and desperate to escape from them. Sadly, this makes them more vulnerable to further exploitation once they arrive.
The scale of suffering
Modern slavery – often referred to as human trafficking – is a global issue, affecting millions of people worldwide. According to the UN’s most recent estimations, at any given time around 40.3 million people are caught in modern slavery. Of these people, the majority are female – just over two-thirds. Most of these women are sex trafficking victims. Among them are women and girls who are forced into prostitution in the UK, coerced into sex rings, and held as sexual slaves. The charity Unseen estimates that women and girls make up 99% of victims in sexually exploitative trafficking cases worldwide.
In Britain, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), set up in 2008, is used to report cases of human trafficking and protect victims. The number of reported victims has been rising since the scheme’s implementation, with 10,000 referrals for potential victims of trafficking made in 2019 alone. The vast majority of female referrals were logged under the ‘sexual exploitation’ category.
Living in the shadows
But the nature of modern slavery means that these numbers only represent a the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reality of modern slavery. Trafficking is a hidden issue, with most of its victims living their lives in the shadows, cut off from mainstream society. This is especially common in the case of victims of trafficking who are seeking refuge in the UK.
Women and girls are often targeted by traffickers in their home countries (according to the NRM, South-East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and East Europe have the highest numbers of female victims reported in the UK). These traffickers pose as people smugglers, promising women a better life in Britain, in the form of a legitimate job or living arrangement. They then often confiscate their documents, so that they are bound to the traffickers throughout the journey to and once they are in the UK.
John Oborn, one of my colleagues at IAS and a legal aid caseworker who represents asylum seekers and trafficking victims, told me more about this process.
“They call them ‘agents’,” he told me when I asked about how his clients describe their traffickers.
“The agents have power over people. They control where you go, how long you stay there for, who you talk to. They take all the person’s documents from them, which leaves people completely in their hands”.
It is through this method that traffickers can hold vast numbers of people as modern slaves. Women become bound to their abusers and are held in either forced marriages/relationships or in forced prostitution, without any other possible route of escape.
What’s more, the tightening of the UK’s immigration laws, and ongoing hostile policies designed to target ‘undocumented’ migrants have meant that many of these women have been pushed even further onto the outskirts of society. Fearing either deportation to countries where they would face further abuse and violence or being placed in one of Britain’s infamous detention facilities, many women victimised by trafficking avoid coming forward to authorities for help.
To make matters worse, the Conservative government’s ongoing hostile environment policy has meant that these fears have been given weight. The hostile environment, which was a policy rolled out in 2012 by the then-home secretary Theresa May, works off the basis that all undocumented migrants should be made to feel as unwelcome as possible in the hopes that this will make them “voluntarily leave”.
During my time working in the sector, I’ve watched as this policy has wreaked havoc on the lives of people, families and communities from a range of marginalised and vulnerable backgrounds. Women and girls who come to the UK in search of refuge, only to be exploited by opportunists who wish to profit from their desperation, are in severe need of the UK’s support. Instead, they are consistently met with hostility, with protective authorities and policymakers turning a blind eye to their trauma.
People not numbers
Something I’ve realised during my time writing about these subjects is that it’s often easy to switch off from individual stories and people. This, I think, is a human response to suffering and the sheer scale of trauma that is indicated by reading and writing about issues that affect such huge volumes of people.
But it is important to remember that it is real people who are impacted by the policies our government chooses to implement and stand by.
“People often forget that asylum seekers are first and foremost human beings”
John, my colleague, summed this up perfectly; “people often forget that asylum seekers are first and foremost human beings,” he said.
And he is right. Laws are created by and for people, and we must remember this. The government has the power to change laws, and it does so every day. It’s time that hostile immigration policies and practices were put to bed. If we can do this, we can begin to make real steps towards supporting, rather than punishing, those who come to the UK looking for a better life.
Luna Williams is the political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service. This is an organisation of immigration lawyers that provides legal aid to asylum seekers, domestic abuse victims and trafficking victims.