DEMONISING VICTIMS OF TRAFFICKING and contemporary forms of slavery erodes public sympathy for measures to protect them, and may lead to attacks on these groups by extremists, UN experts have warned, urging the Westminster government to step up efforts to protect survivors.

The credibility of victims of trafficking and contemporary forms of slavery, including migrants and nationals were under attack in the UK, the experts said in a statement released on 19 December 2022..

“We are alarmed by the rise in unsubstantiated claims by public officials and Government departments regarding persons seeking protection under the Modern Slavery Act and the National Referral Mechanism in the past days and weeks,” they said. Government officials have voiced such claims in the media and on 13 December, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is reported having delivered an oral statement to Parliament in which he said that “the threshold for someone to be considered a modern slave will be significantly raised”.

“Misleading statements that exaggerate the level of fraud and abuse in the system to protect victims of trafficking and slavery, suggest that survivors of these practices are migrants in an irregular situation or criminals rather than vulnerable victims of gross human rights violation”,  the UN experts said, “and that their legal representatives are cynical opportunists rather than human rights defenders. There is little evidence to support these claims and generalising them is dangerous and regressive,”.

They noted that requests for corroborating evidence by civil society have gone ignored on multiple occasions by the officials in question.

The UN experts warned that such rhetoric not only imperils protection for victims of trafficking and contemporary forms of slavery, but may also embolden human traffickers. “This has a chilling effect on those willing to come forward as victims and those willing to provide legal representation to victims, impeding efforts to identify and protect victims and persons at risk of trafficking and hold perpetrators accountable”, the experts said.

They urged public officials to refrain from inflammatory and spurious rhetoric that delegitimises survivors of slavery and human trafficking and their legal representatives. “Focus instead on strengthening measures to protect these vulnerable populations” the experts said.

The independent experts recommended that as an initial step, the government immediately appoints a new Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. The post has been vacant since April 2022, despite being mandated under the Modern Slavery Act (2015).

The experts also urged the Government to address human rights concerns they had previously identified regarding risks of trafficking and contemporary forms of slavery faced by workers in the UK, including migrants and asylum-seekers. They have been in contact with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and regret the lack of response to their last communication on the related issue.

The experts are: Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery; Siobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children; and Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

* Source: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights