Co-operators in modern slavery campaign criticise Illegal Migration Bill

It is feared the bill could stop modern slavery victims forced into the UK by traffickers from receiving support or protection

Modern slavery campaigners have joined the chorus of protest against the Illegal Migration Bill, announced this week by Rishi Sunak’s government in a bid to stop illegal boat crossings of the English Channel.

The government says the plan will mean people who “arrive in the UK illegally will be detained and swiftly removed to their home country if safe, or another safe third country, such as Rwanda, where they will be supported to rebuild their lives.”

It adds: “Anyone illegally entering the UK will be prevented from accessing the UK’s world-leading modern slavery support or abusing these laws to block their removal. Any other challenges or human rights claims can also only be heard after removal, remotely.”

Critics have rounded on the plan as unworkable and illegal, with UN Refugee Agency HNCR saying it amounts to “an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances.”

Sunak and his ministers have defended the legality of the plan. Home secretary Suella Braverman told the BBC: “We are confident that we are complying with the law, domestic and international… but we are also pushing the boundaries and we are testing innovative and novel legal arguments.”

Blocking access to modern slavery support is a particular concern to the co-op movement, which has played a leading role in the campaign to tackle the crisis.

The Co-op Party tweeted that the bill “could stop modern slavery victims who are forced into the UK by traffickers from receiving support or protection” and repeated its call on Braverman to fill the vacant post of modern slavery commissioner. “Suella Braverman has left @UKAntiSlavery role empty to avoid scrutiny of bills like this,” it said.

In another post, the Party said: “We are proud that our movement has always acted to help modern slavery victims: campaigning for legislation, improving protections for victims, and committing over 100 councils to eliminate modern slavery from their supply chains. This Bill and this rhetoric won’t help anyone.”

Joe Fortune, general secretary of the Party, told Co-op News: “Our party and movement have a proud history of successfully campaigning against the evil that is modern slavery, and standing up for its victims. It is disappointing that the proposed bill will undermine those hard fought for protections: depriving victims of support and empowering human traffickers.

“The government must immediately take steps to appoint an independent anti-slavery commissioner before proceeding with this Bill to ensure proper scrutiny on behalf of victims, and end this cynical rollback of modern slavery victims rights.”

Causeway, recently reappointed by Bright Future co-op to run its programme of offering work placements for modern slavery survivors, issued a statement calling for a better system.

“There’s no easy answer to the issue of asylum seekers and refugees arriving in the UK on small boats,” it wrote, “but criminalising thousands of vulnerable people and further ruining already damaged lives, cannot be the best the UK can do.

“‘Safe and legal’ routes to the UK don’t exist for the majority of refugees, so imprisoning people in detention centres for not using them is unfair, and punishes those who believe they had no other choice but to enter the UK this way.”

It added: “If the government believes there are people taking advantage of the system, then we urge it to invest in a better system, not to frustrate the asylum process for everyone just to stop a small percentage of bad faith actors.”

Causeway pointed to figures from the Refugee Council which show that the majority of asylum claims made in 2022 (75%) resulted in a grant of asylum or humanitarian protection.

It warned that the bill will “force desperate people to disappear rather than claim asylum. Those who would otherwise have been granted the right to live here, to healthcare, to housing, to employment, will instead remain on the margins of society for a lifetime.”

Noting the threat to deny modern slavery support to those entering the UK illegally, it said: “This punishes the victim not the perpetrator, and falls far short of the UK’s commitment to addressing modern slavery abuses.

“When we create a hostile environment for modern slavery survivors, we prevent them from seeking help, and embolden their traffickers and abusers to threaten them with deportation and arrest.

“The UK can do better than this.“

Click here for the Coop Party’s petition to appoint an anti-slavery commissioner

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