LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain prides itself on being a global leader in the fight against modern slavery but it is lagging behind others when it comes to ensuring victims feel safe enough to cooperate with authorities, legal experts said on Thursday.
Lack of adequate support for victims and uncertainty over their immigration rights are hampering efforts to prosecute and convict traffickers, according a study funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, a charity.
“The U.S. and Europe both have models for long term support for victims; however, the UK is lagging behind,” the study’s author, Nusrat Uddin, a London-based lawyer specializing in trafficking cases, wrote in the report.
Britain passed tough anti-slavery legislation in 2015 introducing life sentences for traffickers, measures to protect people at risk of being enslaved and compelling large businesses to address the threat of forced labor in their supply chains.
The law, a world first, allowed the government to take the mantle of global leader against the crime estimated to affect 40 million people worldwide - but others are now doing better, according to the research.
Belgium and the Netherlands grant victims free legal assistance, which Britain reserves for defendants, and provide them socio-economic support, including accommodation and expert counseling, for a longer period of time, it said.
The U.S. has a dedicated trafficking visa for foreign victims who come forward and can provide evidence of their situation. It allows the victim to stay for four years and can lead to permanent status, it said.
In Britain authorities usually only grant an extendable one year of leave, but the path to a permanent right remain is more complicated, the study, based on interviews with trafficking victims and groups helping them, added.
This is damaging police efforts to bring criminals to justice, experts said.
“If victims are not looked after and do not feel safe, they either won’t come forward in the first place, they are too frightened to disclose and give evidence, or they disappear,” Vernon Coaker, a British lawmaker who chairs a parliamentary group on trafficking and modern slavery, said in a statement.
Britain charged a record 239 suspects and found 185 guilty of modern slavery offences this year - but activists say the number of convictions has not increased significantly since the new law was introduced.
“Three years following the Modern Slavery Act convictions of traffickers remain low,” Kate Roberts, head of the Human Trafficking Foundation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“There is a clear connection between the support victims receive and their ability to disclose to the authorities. This should come as no surprise. Control and fear are a significant component of many trafficking cases.”
Britain’s Home Office (interior ministry) said the government had commissioned an independent review of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.
“The Government is committed to identifying and supporting the men, women and children who are victims of modern slavery, to recover from their exploitation and rebuild their lives,” a Home Office spokesman said in a statement.
Britain is home to about 136,000 modern slaves, Australian human rights group Walk Free said last month - a figure about 10 times higher than a 2013 government estimate.