By Ellie Russell, UK Advocacy Manager, Hope for Justice.
All too often, survivors of modern slavery tell us that not knowing whether they can remain in the UK has a significant negative impact on their mental health, and is an overwhelming barrier to their recovery.
We hear time and again that the lack of certainty in relation to their immigration status leaves survivors stressed, anxious and often lacking the everyday support they need to recover and rebuild their lives after exploitation.
The long and often agonising wait for decisions on status invariably impacts on survivors’ well-being and recovery. They describe feelings of being left in ‘limbo’, waiting in often overcrowded asylum accommodation, unable to work, study or have access to mainstream benefits or long-term accommodation.
That’s why we welcomed the recent High Court ruling that survivors waiting for their asylum claim to be determined and who have a positive (conclusive) grounds decision from the National Referral Mechanism, the government’s formal process for identifying trafficking survivors, should be granted leave to remain in the UK.
It’s vital that this ruling is upheld, to enable thousands more trafficking survivors to work safely and to be empowered with education, benefits and other support. Without leave to remain, survivors are also often at high risk of being re-trafficked due to the vulnerability this instability creates.
We know that survivors are far more likely to be able to participate in police investigations from a position of stability and safety. Whereas when survivors are left in a limbo state, it is less likely perpetrators will be brought to justice.
While the judgment is a crucial step towards improved survivor care, we believe that every survivor who has a positive NRM decision should be swiftly granted leave to remain in the UK. Secure immigration status is a fundamental part of the journey towards healing and recovery for survivors.
Our Independent Modern Slavery Advocates (IMSAs) here at Hope for Justice regularly support survivors to access immigration advice, and often this includes legal representation to challenge leave to remain decisions. We have seen first-hand the difference it makes to be granted leave to remain in the UK:
Evelyn* was trafficked to the UK for forced labour and domestic servitude. She was eventually identified and referred into the NRM. Evelyn has been awaiting a decision on her asylum claim for many years.
While waiting, she was left in asylum accommodation, receiving less than £40 a week, and unable to move forward with her desire to study and begin working. Our IMSAs supported Evelyn to access further legal advice to challenge the refusal to grant leave to remain, on the basis of her positive Conclusive Grounds decision.
As a result, Evelyn has recently been granted leave to remain in the UK, while her asylum claim continues. This has empowered her to turn her life around. Evelyn has been able to move into independent accommodation, access education and begin a job.
Without stable immigration status, it is often impossible for survivors to feel empowered to move forward with their life in the UK. That’s why we are also calling for changes to the Nationality and Borders Bill. The Bill, if passed without any changes, will make it more difficult for trafficking survivors to be granted leave to remain. The decision as to whether to grant leave should take into account each individual’s full circumstances, and we are concerned that this would not happen under the Bill as it stands
The Bill would also mean many survivors may be denied access to support if they come forward, leaving them at risk of deportation and denying them the opportunity to support police investigations. This in turn would increase their risk of being re-trafficked.
Survivors of modern slavery must be empowered with the right support to allow them to embrace their freedom, and if they choose, to put down permanent roots here in the UK. Granting more survivors leave to remain is an absolute priority in the fight against modern slavery, and our goal to create a world without it.
*To protect individual identities, here we have drawn from the stories of a number of people that we have supported at Hope for Justice. Name and identifying details have been changed