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Building a better system for survivors of trafficking in immigration detention

Beth Mullan-Feroze
Peter Wieltschnig
Immigration detention policies are punishing survivors of trafficking. The number of survivors of trafficking
being detained has increased dramatically in recent years.
Referrals of potential victims to the National
Referral Mechanism (NRM) from immigration detention tripled from 501 in 2017 to 1,611 in 2021. In 2022, at
least 2,516 people were referred into the NRM from detention (25% increase from 2021).

Research has shown that detention has a significant negative impact on survivors’ mental health and recovery. Survivors of trafficking are frequently diagnosed with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and suffer from self-harm and suicidal ideation. The appropriate treatment for these conditions, such as individual trauma-focused therapy, is rarely available in immigration detention. Even if such therapy was provided, it would not be effective in the harsh conditions of immigration detention as it requires the person to feel stable and safe to benefit from treatment (as per the NICE guidelines). This means people’s needs are not being met and their mental health is likely to deteriorate further.

This situation is getting worse. Successive harmful legislation like the Nationality and Border Act 2022, Illegal Migration Act 2023 and Safety of Rwanda Act 2024 has created a situation where tens of thousands of people will be stuck in legal limbo, with survivors of trafficking being frozen out of meaningful access to justice and support. We are also seeing the rapid expansion of the detention estate. These policies have empowered traffickers to drive people into and continue exploitation. Ultimately, they are preventing people escaping exploitation and reporting to the authorities and they increase the risks of re-trafficking.

While previous Home Office policy stated that victims of trafficking (among other vulnerable groups) were only suitable for detention in exceptional circumstances, in 2021 survivors of trafficking were brought entirely under the scope of the controversial ‘Adults at Risk’ (AAR) policy, despite the government recognising that this would result in more survivors of trafficking being detained. No potential or confirmed victim or survivor of trafficking should be kept in immigration detention.

The recommendations in this briefing outline the necessary measures for ensuring that victims and survivors of trafficking are able to access the support and protection that they need for them to recover and break the cycle of trafficking, and for the UK to meet its international obligations. Click on the arrow below to read more.