The exploitation of tens of thousands of people in modern slavery is a human rights crisis. An estimated 130,000 people currently live in modern slavery in the UK alone.
In recent remarks, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the government’s priority was to help ‘real victims’ rather than those who supposedly lie about being victims of the modern slavery to enter the UK. It’s not new. The emphasis on finding ‘real’ victims has been a central message of anti-trafficking policy for over 150 years – and it has serious implications.
Many survivors of trafficking and slavery are coerced into criminal activity or enter the UK undocumented as part of their exploitation. Rather than receiving help, they are first treated as criminals and then as victims because they do not fit the image of an innocent and “authentic” victim.
The new Nationality and Borders Act has been criticized by survivors, charities, academics and former independent anti-trafficking commissioner Dame Sara Thornton for this exact reason.
The law prioritizes deterring irregular immigration over protecting victims of trafficking, which could deter those who have entered the country undocumented from coming forward for fear of punishment.
The UK government is now considering reforming modern slavery law and withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether. This repeats a pattern of combating modern slavery by criminalizing victims and restricting their rights. The logic behind these decisions is a false dichotomy between “true victims” and “criminal abusers”.
Yet of the 12,665 cases reviewed in 2021, the Home Office positively identified 90% of claimants as alleged victims of modern slavery or trafficking. This means victims are granted the option of further consideration for 45 days of state support and legal assistance.
In other words, nine out of ten people referred to ID systems are likely victims. This figure could be even higher for 2022.
This shows that these channels are being used to good effect, but the message from government ministers says otherwise. Both Braverman and his predecessor Priti Patel claimed without evidence that there was widespread abuse of the modern slavery reporting system.
Victims of “white slavery”
Today’s attitudes and policies have their roots in 19th century social campaigns against ‘white slavery’. This term was used to describe the forced sexual exploitation of women by “foreign” men.
Most of what we know about the lives of victims of white slavery comes not from their own writings, but from political portrayals, police reports, and the records of white slavery advocates.
These women were portrayed as “ideal victims”, helpless virgins who were abused by strangers. They were usually depicted as young Anglo-Saxon or Jewish women forced into commercial sexual exploitation. It was unlikely that men, sex workers, or anyone not relevant to this narrative were recorded as victims of white slavery.
The National Vigilance Association (NVA), an English moral reform group founded in 1885, played a leading role in the fight against white slavery. It provided housing and work for dozens of victims each year and also advocated reform of the UK Commercial Sexual Exploitation Act.
Its annual reports, available at the British Library, present these women as victims to be rescued. Yet their records also reveal cases of women refusing help from the NVA or fleeing their homes.
Far from being the docile and “genuine” victim imagined, the instances where survivors rejected NVA help show a range of experiences and desires. Victims are not a monolithic group.
Instead of working in the NVA laundry, it is possible that some women preferred to risk earning an income on their own terms, through sex work, theater or other forms of work that the NVA considered as immoral. These records show us that trafficking victimization has always been complex. Often the people the NVA helped were not the innocent and respectable victims that the organization publicly portrayed in its reports. Yet this image inspired a legal framework that endures today.
As a crime, white slavery became known as “trafficking in women and children” within the League of Nations. In 1949, the UN recognized the crime of serious exploitation as “trafficking in persons”. From there, trafficking was reworked into the Palermo Protocol of 2000 and the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015.
Throughout, the concept of the “ideal victim” has been under the surface of these laws, for example in the description of “women and children”, and has been invoked repeatedly when taking advantage of a political message.
The “ideal victim” lives
When Theresa May introduced the Modern Slavery Act 2016 while she was Home Secretary, she touted it as brand new legislation making the UK a global leader in the fight against trafficking. Although he introduced state-of-the-art policy, such as requiring companies to investigate company supply chains, that was not the whole story. Some aspects of the ideal victim trope persist and have become more salient today as the government changes the law.
It was reported in November that a “white list” of countries could be released. This echoes a New Labor strategy where asylum seekers from certain countries were fast-tracked to be deported, but the new policy could also strip them of the right to appeal.
New laws and policies only make sense when they broadly categorize victims into worthy or unworthy categories, which is impossible when dealing with a complex issue like trafficking. Restricting safe passages for asylum seekers and victims of trafficking is also leading to deadlier results, such as the four who lost their lives recently trying to cross the English Channel.
The search for “real” victims obscures the complex reality that many people experience as survivors of trafficking and modern slavery. The UK must move away from anti-trafficking policy that places people in hierarchies of victims, which it has done since the 1800s. It is time for a new strategy that recognizes the diversity of victimization .
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Anna Forringer-Beal does not work for, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her appointment. university.