Making its way through parliament, the new Nationality and Borders Bill is likely to deter modern slavery victims from coming forward and make life easier for traffickers, critics say
It’s been over four years since Analiza Guevarra packed her belongings in a black bin bag and walked away from what had become unbearable work conditions.
At the time, the softly spoken 41-year-old was working in an upscale neighbourhood in West London as a live-in domestic worker for a Qatari family. She had been with the family for a couple of years in Qatar, where working hours were long and the pay meagre. Things further deteriorated when they decided to move to London and bring her along. She didn’t have a choice in the matter, and was the only one of four domestic workers flown to the UK with the family, expected to do the same amount of work, including looking after the youngest of the family’s eight children.
Overworked, exhausted and underpaid, she slung the black bag over her shoulder. She was given so little freedom that she felt she had to justify her outing by telling the family she was taking out the trash. She never returned.
Guevarra has since then been recognised by the UK government as a victim of modern slavery. The final decision on her case was issued about two years after she entered the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s framework for modern slavery and trafficking victims, referred by a local NGO. Modern slavery is used as an umbrella term to describe a wide range of exploitative crimes that include domestic servitude, human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage and forced marriage.
However, under the UK government’s proposed Nationality and Borders Bill, Guevarra – who had become undocumented by the time she approached the UK authorities – would likely fall through the cracks or at the very least find it more difficult to have her case heard.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the bill’s aim is to “increase the fairness of our system” and prevent abuse.
Few, however, agree with that statement, and the bill, which focuses on migration and asylum, has been strongly criticised from its inception for several of its provisions. Among the most controversial is a proposal for an Australian-style “offshore processing” of asylum claims, and the creation of a “two-tier” asylum system that would see asylum seekers who have entered the country through illegal routes – the vast majority of refugees - receive a “lower class” refugee status. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has warned it could undermine the 1951 Refugee Convention.
There is an equal amount of concern among groups working in the field of modern slavery and anti-trafficking about the effects the bill could have on the system of identification of victims and prosecution of the crime of modern slavery – with even senior police officers warning it could make life easier for traffickers.
“It represents a continuing trend from the British government of conflating immigration compliance with modern slavery protections,” Jamie Fookes, advocacy coordinator for the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group at the human rights group Anti-Slavery International, told TRT World.
There are two main provisions that those working in the modern slavery sector are concerned about: requiring a victim to self-identify as such early in the process to avoid damage to credibility, and the exclusion of offenders from victims’ support.
“Just being illegally present in the UK could be enough of a criminal offence to disqualify you from accessing trafficking support,” Fookes explains, adding that the bill remains vague on many points.
“Traffickers will know how to abuse the system, and if you make it harder to get support for migrant victims of trafficking and you make it harder for them to come forward out of fear they will be deported or detained, traffickers will exploit that,” he added.
The Conservative government was also slammed in late November for introducing a new decision-making body tasked with identifying victims of modern slavery, the Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority. NGOs and human rights groups decried this was done without civil society consultation and point out that its name alone suggests an inherent bias, which could lead to an unjust two-tier system that could further deter undocumented victims from coming forward.
Guevarra left the Philippines in a bid to provide some security for her four children, some of whom are teenagers now. Just like many other women who become their family’s only breadwinners, she found an agency that arranged for her to fly to Qatar. At the time, the kafala system of sponsorship for migrant workers – which ties them to their employers - was still in place in the country. It has since been partially reformed.
“My husband doesn't have permanent work,” she says, “all I want is to provide for my family.”
In London, Guevarra ended up barely getting any sleep. The employer was also retaining some of her wages at this point.
“If I didn't finish my [tasks], my employer would get angry,” she recounts. “Until the time she slapped me. Then I told myself, this is enough, I need to look after myself,” she recounts. “I started thinking that I needed to leave this house, but I didn’t know anyone in London,” Guevarra tells TRT World.
A Libyan family who had become aware of her situation eventually offered to take her in. Guevarra, whose main concern was sending money to her four children back home, took it.
The new employer appeared kinder at the outset, but was paying her just over £300 ($401) a month, far below the minimum wage.
“The attitude of the lady [had become] a lot like that of my previous employer. I wasn’t comfortable,” she says. She still had no idea who to turn to or how to change her situation.
That is, until she found out there was a Filipino church nearby, and went to mass one Sunday. That’s when she met activists from a community-led association, the Filipino Domestic Workers’ Association, that would provide her with a temporary place to stay and help her through the maze of bureaucratic steps she needed to take to make her case heard by the authorities. She is now one of its most active members.
Every year, the UK government issues around 20,000 special six-month visas to domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are brought to the UK from Gulf countries under the kafala system. And while not all will be victims of modern slavery, the system itself is known to fuel exploitation and abuse due to the dependency it creates. The precarity of workers’ immigration status helps merely re-create it in the UK, experts have argued.
“The bill introduces a system whereby foreign nationals victims of slavery will have their credibility assessed by how timely the disclosure is, and the idea is that this is to encourage early identification, reduce delays and protect the system from so-called abuse,” Natalie Sedacca, a lecturer in law at the University of Exeter whose research has focused on domestic workers and international labour law, told TRT World.
“But it's a very problematic idea to assume that if a claim is late, it lacks merit,” she continued. “As with any kind of traumatic events, it can take a long time to disclose, but also even to recognise.”
More than 10,000 people were referred to the authorities as victims of modern slavery in 2019. The real number, however, is estimated to be much higher and includes people trapped in sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced labour on farms, car washes and manufacturing. Vulnerable young people recruited by drug trafficking gangs are also considered victims, and are mostly UK nationals. The bill will affect nationals and non-nationals alike.
The UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act aimed at making it easier to prosecute criminals and protect victims. But it ran counter to the Conservative government’s “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants. The latest bill, observers fear, takes the hardline approach to the next level.
“The government looks at the system and sees that delays are too long, the backlog is too big, it's not functioning very well. And we completely agree with that,” Fookes says. “The problem is, they looked at that and [concluded] the issue is migrants frustrating the process. And there’s just no evidence of that.”