Thomson Reuters Foundation
London

Survivors of modern slavery in Britain should be allowed to remain in the country for a year to recover and help bring traffickers to justice, campaigners said on Thursday as they urged the government to back a proposed law supporting victims.

The bill would ensure slavery survivors receive help from housing to healthcare and the right to stay in Britain for a year - up from 45 days at present - while deciding whether to apply to remain indefinitely or accept help to return home.

 Houses of Parliament 2

The British Houses of Parliament. PICTURE: Marcin Nowak/Unsplash.

This would allow victims to recover without fear of ending up destitute or homeless in Britain and vulnerable to further abuse, or being deported to countries where they could be trafficked once more, several anti-slavery charities said.

At least 7,000 suspected victims of slavery were uncovered in Britain last year, up a third on 2017, according to data that activists said last month raised concerns about the government's ability to support a growing number of survivors.

"Providing victims with adequate support is not just the right thing to do for their recovery, it is also essential if we are to bring traffickers to justice and prevent them exploiting others in the future," said Louise Gleich of the charity CARE.

"Without protection, support and stability, victims cannot give evidence to police and courts meaning traffickers go free and the cycle of exploitation continues."

Campaigners said they would deliver 60,000 messages on Thursday including signatures collected on a Freedom United petition backing the bill to Britain's Home Office and Prime Minister Theresa May's residence.

The bill was put forward by parliament's unelected upper chamber in 2017 but is now in limbo in the lower house, said Gleich, a policy expert, who urged the government to ensure it is debated rather than letting it drop off the radar for good.

Several activists told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they believe the government fears allowing slavery victims to stay in Britain for a year because this could attract more migrants to the country as it cracks down on immigration.

"The government has done a lot to tackle modern slavery in recent years, but unfortunately the focus on supporting the victims of this heinous crime has been missing," said Anna Sereni, a researcher with Anti-Slavery International.

"As a result, survivors get caught up in a system that is ineffective at best and all too often outright hostile to them."

The Home Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite being hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain said last year that it would review its landmark 2015 law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive firms to stop forced labour or help victims.

Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation - a figure 10 times higher than a government estimate from 2013.