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Border Force needs to ‘up their game’ on slavery


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According to estimates, there are 10,000-13,000 victims of modern slavery living in the UK. In order to tackle this problem, the UK government operates a Modern Slavery Strategy, and the Border Force plays its part by identifying potential victims, and ‘targeting’, ‘intercepting’ and ‘disrupting’ traffickers, primarily at the border. How are they doing?

Not well, suggests the most recent report of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. With only two prosecutions for trafficking related offences resulting from referrals made by the Border Force in the last two years, the Inspector finds that the department ‘may also be failing potential victims’.

Two examples stand out in the report. In the first the potential victim is detained to process an asylum claim and then permitted to make a voluntary departure, presumably back into the traffickers:

  • On 8 February 2016, the passenger arrives at Birmingham Airport.
  • Border Force officers suspect that the individual may be a trafficker.
  • The individual tells officers that they had previously been ‘forced to do things’ as part of a prostitution ring, but there is no evidence from the file that this was probed further and no further investigation of whether the individual is a trafficker.
  • The individual claims asylum and is detained pending consideration of their claim.
  • On 12 March 2016, the individual withdraws their asylum application and makes a voluntary departure from the UK.

In the second example the migrant was almost certainly a victim, or was about to become one, but having declined protection was simply refused entry and removed:

  • On 17 February 2016, the individual presented themselves at the PCP at Manchester Airport seeking to transit to join a cruise ship.
  • Intelligence alerts indicated that the cruise in question was a hoax, and that this was linked to a modern slavery network.
  • The Border Force officer informed the potential victim of this intelligence and the risk they faced if they were to proceed.
  • The officer also informed the potential victim about the support and protection that could be provided if an NRM referral were made.
  • The individual refused to consent to an NRM referral.
  • Border Force then refused leave to enter.
  • The following day (18 February 2016), the individual was removed from the UK.

What happened to these people and the others failed in this way? And what happened to the traffickers?

One of the issues that appears to have particularly irritated the inspection team was the ‘poor standard of record keeping and different datasets in use’, and the lack of detail recorded in paper and electronic case files. This meant that the inspection ‘struggled to obtain a clear and reliable picture of Border Force performance’ and that management assurances of proper processes could not ‘hope to be effective’. It also meant that, although the inspection team were able to divine that training targets had not been met, the Border Force ‘had not maintained a record of who had completed the training [so] the exact shortfall was not known’.

The report is also critical of buck-passing between Home Office departments which has impacted on overall performance. In theory, the Border Force should be referring cases where they have identified a person they suspect of trafficking to an Immigration Enforcement Crime and Financial Investigation (CFI) team, to consider whether to arrest, investigate and, if appropriate, charge and prosecute an individual. However, the report finds that officials working for the Border Force are apparently ‘sceptical that CFI teams would accept a case, so [are] not inclined to refer a suspected trafficker if there was an alternative, such as removal from the UK’.

This is worrying for two reasons. Firstly, the CFI teams investigated the majority of the cases they were referred (83% in 2014/2015 and 73% in 2015/2016), meaning that Home Office grumbling that referrals would not be investigated rests on shaky statistical ground. And secondly, and more importantly, removing rather than prosecuting suspected traffickers is not a sustainable solution, or even any solution, to the international problem of people trafficking. For their part, the CFI also complain that the quality of evidence they received from the Border Force was poor, affecting the number of referrals they were able to prosecute.

In the manner of an exasperated parent who is not able to make an informed decision as to which child is to blame, the report states in its summary that ‘[w]hatever, both Border Force and CFI need to ‘up their game’ to pose a credible threat and deterrent to the traffickers.’

The overall sense given by this inspection report is that identifying traffickers and the potential victims of slavery is nowhere near the top of the Border Force priority list, and that the department is simply going through the motions. A number of officers who had completed their training for these purposes even told inspectors that they had done so ‘quickly, merely as ‘a tick box exercise’, in order to satisfy their managers’. The Inspector finds that the Border Force is rather more concerned with keeping the queues moving through immigration controls, ‘which they see as their absolute priority’ and is a message ‘reinforced by local management’.

The main bugbear outlined in the report, though, is with the quality of the record keeping. Without it, the Border Force is ‘not creating the evidence base from which to learn and improve’ and cannot be held meaningfully accountable by independent reports such as this one. The Inspector suggests that ‘the priority must be to improve the collection, recording and analysis of data, in order to inform operational activity and the training and development needs of staff, and to ensure that Border Force is delivering what the Modern Slavery Act and Modern Slavery Strategy require of it’.

At the moment, according to this report, it is falling some way short.

You can read the Home Office response to the report here. Also, too late to help the victims so far:

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