SUELLA BRAVERMAN’S UGLY BRAND OF ‘PATRIOTISM’, which seems to consist largely of being as harsh as possible towards asylum seekers, may paradoxically result in a failure to protect or support some of the most vulnerable British citizens – including children. Indeed, her approach could be a grim example of how xenophobic right-wing politics always fails the least privileged, no matter what their nationality.
In August, a joint report from the British Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency found that people seeking asylum in the UK were placed at risk of modern slavery because there was “too much focus on immigration enforcement rather than safety and protection”.
Nevertheless, in her first incarnation as Home Secretary, Suella Braverman announced that the focus on immigration enforcement would become even more intense. In a speech to the Conservative Party Conference she said: “our modern slavery laws are being abused by people gaming the system. We’ve seen a 450 per cent increase in modern slavery claims since 2014.” The implication was that large numbers of people were falsely claiming to be victims of modern slavery, in order to be allowed to stay in the UK. This claim was comprehensively demolished by several organisations, including the Christian Action, Education, and Research Centre (CARE).
To be recognised as a possible victim of modern slavery, people must be referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). Individuals cannot refer themselves, it has to be done by a ‘first responder’ organisation, such as a local authority, police force, specified NGO or government agency. So the increase in referrals is not coming from individuals with an ulterior motive, it is coming from official sources. And far from overstating the issue, those figures are almost certainly a significant underestimate. In 2021 there were almost 13,000 referrals to the NRM, but Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice believes: “there could be at least 100,000 victims in the UK, with the actual number likely to be even greater.”
Braverman’s ‘spinning’ of the facts around such a serious crime, against all available evidence, is bad enough. But using it to further her own ant-immigration agenda risks ignoring the large numbers of UK citizens who may become victims. Indeed, in the most recent figures for people referred to the NRM, the second most common nationality was British.
As the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre says: “Last year, British nationals accounted for nearly a third of all potential victims (31 per cent). The largest proportion of these referrals in 2021 was for criminal exploitation involving children, representing 55 per cent of all referrals of British nationals, with the majority exploited in criminal activities such as ‘county lines’.”
We know that the trafficking of children within the UK for criminal exploitation is increasing. Children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities are particularly vulnerable, as are those living in poverty. Despite this, Ms Braverman has removed responsibility for modern slavery from the portfolio of the Safeguarding Minister, and given it to the Immigration Minister– currently Robert Jenrick.
The anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice said of Ms Braverman’s decision, “Broadly speaking, we think the move is highly regressive; there is a worrying conflation between illegal immigration and modern slavery and the shifting of responsibility from the safeguarding minister to immigration minister is likely to exacerbate the issue.”
This conflation has contributed to a culture in civil society which often fails to see British people as potential victims in need of protection. As the Modern Slavery Centre says: “What sets British citizens affected by modern slavery apart from other potential victims is that they have regularly come into contact with social services, schools and education institutions, mental and physical health professionals even before their exploitation starts. Despite this, agencies that are designed to support them, regularly miss opportunities to protect them from being exploited.”
The Centre’s report, Protecting British nationals from modern slavery recommends a public health approach, and “reframing the national policy approach away from a primary focus on ‘border protection’ towards prevention, recovery and protection needs of victims”. But when the report was published in September, the Home Secretary was doing the exact opposite.
There is evidence that the wider government, whilst not averse to allowing modern slavery to be used as a divisive propaganda tool, is less than serious about actually tackling it. The post of Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC) has remained vacant for more than six months, long before the appointment of Ms Braverman as Home Secretary. On the Commissioner’s website the most recent post, on 1 May, said: “In the absence of a commissioner, IASC staff attending meetings or engaging with stakeholders will have no remit to provide views or take on or contribute to new work.”
The Conservatives’ erosion of our social fabric, via the slashing of public services and social security, has increased the numbers of British people who are vulnerable to becoming victims of modern slavery. Having increased this vulnerability, the Conservatives seem to be disregarding the human consequences but using the issue to foment the division and xenophobia which they hope may keep them in power. This is one more thing to remember when they talk of ‘protecting the most vulnerable’.
if you are concerned about someone who may be a victim of modern slavery, contact the modern slavery helpline: 08000 121 700
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden