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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Victims of human trafficking could find themselves excluded from the "best legal protections" after Britain leaves the European Union, the chairwoman of a parliamentary anti-trafficking watchdog said on Tuesday.
British lawmaker Fiona MacTaggart told a UK anti-slavery conference that Britain's membership of the EU had enabled lawyers to argue on behalf of enslaved people at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
But proposed changes to British law in the wake of the Brexit vote on June 23 would mean "ECHR rulings will not prevail", the opposition Labour member of parliament said.
"Better protection for victims of slavery must be part of the Brexit agenda," MacTaggart told a gathering of around 200 campaigners, lawyers and other delegates in London.
Prime Minister Theresa May said earlier this month that Britain, where an estimated 11,700 people are enslaved, would "lead the world" with its efforts to stamp out modern day slavery and human trafficking.
In July, the prime minister pledged to use 33.5 million pounds ($42 million) from the foreign aid budget to focus on combating slavery in countries where victims are known to be trafficked to Britain.
But MacTaggart said she had not heard any government ministers working on Brexit mention what new protections there will be for trafficked people after Britain leaves the EU.
"I call on those planning our exit from Europe to prepare and publish a plan to protect future victims of slavery and compensate them for their exploitation," MacTaggart said.
The Home Office (interior ministry) and the Department for Exiting the European Union did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Delegates at the annual conference voiced concerns trafficking victims would suffer as a result of tougher immigration controls and Britain's withdrawal from the EU's international crime-fighting agency, Europol.
"If you want to slam your borders shut - in a Brexit model - how does that tally with what our prime minister wants to do which is lead the world on combatting trafficking?" said lawyer Parosha Chandran, who has represented victims of human trafficking.
Activists have welcomed Britain's Modern Slavery Act, which came into force last year, as a milestone in the struggle against a crime affecting nearly 46 million people worldwide, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by Walk Free Foundation.
But MacTaggart said the UK law was too focused on prosecuting offenders, an approach which often fails.
"The witnesses, who are also victims don't get the support they need to give evidence," MacTaggart said.
Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org