LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Modern slavery survivors wishing to stay in Britain have secured the right to free government legal advice following a case hailed by campaigners on Tuesday as a boost for victim support.
A suspected trafficking victim who was taken to Britain as a child and sexually abused was refused legal aid over her immigration status by the government last year, as it changed its stance on providing help in such cases, lawyers said.
The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, launched a legal challenge, which led the government to revise its position, ending a year’s limbo for survivors who had been unable to receive legal aid to stay in Britain, activists said.
The government confirmed on Monday that victims have the right to free assistance, the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) said.
“The outcome in this case provides much needed clarity - victims should now be able to access immigration advice when they most need it,” said Carita Thomas, a solicitor with ATLEU.
“Being a world leader ... means putting victims’ needs first,” Thomas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
The government has always been clear that legal aid for immigration advice is available for individuals identified as a potential victim of trafficking, the Ministry of Justice said.
“The legal challenge brought by ATLEU has helped to clarify particular circumstances where such advice is available and the work that legal aid can cover,” a ministry spokesman said.
Britain’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act is considered a milestone in the global anti-slavery fight for introducing life sentences for traffickers, forcing firms to check their supply chains for forced labor, and protecting people at risk of being enslaved.
People who say they have been enslaved can access counseling, housing, and a weekly stipend of 38 pounds ($52)while the state decides whether to recognize them as victims.
Yet the 2015 law does not specify or guarantee a period or standard of care for those who claim to be victims, critics say.
Proposed legislation - put forward by parliament’s upper chamber - would allow survivors to remain in Britain for a year and receive a support package while deciding whether to apply to remain indefinitely, or return home.
“Access to free legal advice is fundamental to the recovery of any victim,” said Kate Roberts, head of office at the Human Trafficking Foundation.
“Insecure immigration status leaves already vulnerable people in limbo, without the security to disclose what has happened to them and to pursue justice.”
At least 13,000 people in Britain are thought to be victims of forced labor, sex exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure is likely in the tens of thousands.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org