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People seeking asylum at risk of exploitation in the UK

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People seeking asylum at risk of exploitation in the UK

3 August 2022
A woman alone in a kitchen by the sink
A joint report by UNHCR and The British Red Cross identifies the risk of exploitation to asylum seekers

“My worry is particularly for vulnerable people who haven't got the voice or the ability to advocate for themselves. How many are suffering in silence? How many know what they need to do to raise a concern? How many people even recognise what's happening to them as exploitation?(Interview participant)  

Critical gaps in the UK asylum system mean that people seeking safety – including those fleeing modern slavery – may be at risk of potential exploitation, according to a new report by the British Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

 The research found that inadequate support is exposing people in need of protection to potential harm. It cites examples of vulnerable asylum-seekers forced into modern slavery, including domestic servitude, sexual and labour exploitation and forced criminality. Straightforward changes to the asylum process would reduce these risks of exploitation by putting safety at the heart of the asylum system. 

The joint report At risk: Exploitation and the UK asylum system’ includes powerful testimonies from those who have experienced exploitation directly, and those working to support them. A woman who had been recognised as victim of modern slavery in domestic servitude spoke of having to wait four years for an asylum decision. Unable to work legally during this time to support herself and her family, she had no other choice but to take up domestic work where she was again exploited. She lives in fear of being imprisoned but feels she has no alternative.  

Other participants in the research gave accounts of victims of modern slavery being placed into hostel-type accommodation in inappropriate locations, including in areas close to where they had been trafficked. Others were treated as ‘immigration offenders’ rather than people at risk when they went missing from accommodation. One case worker shared the example of a man who had been kidnapped from asylum support accommodation. Despite his clear and recent vulnerabilities, he was not accommodated in a safe house but was returned to asylum support accommodation and re-trafficked. 

The report identified key weaknesses in the current system that can expose people to greater risk. These include an over-reliance on people having to self-identify as victims of exploitation and too much focus on immigration enforcement rather than safety and protection, meaning people often feel unable to disclose their experiences. Inadequate training for government officials, delays to decision making, poor housing and too little support also all make people vulnerable to poverty and exploitation.  

The report’s recommendations call for safety to be placed at the heart of the asylum system and suggests practical changes to help reduce the risk of exploitation. The recommendations include: 

  • improved screening at all stages of the asylum process to ensure that vulnerabilities and risks are identified and addressed; 
  • individual safety should be prioritised over immigration enforcement to ensure safeguarding is not set aside; 
  • accommodation should be safe and secure; 
  • decisions should be made in good time to avoid unnecessary delays and enable people to start rebuilding their lives as rapidly as possible;
  • more timely support for people after they have had a positive asylum decision to help them access housing and financial assistance.

Zoë Abrams, executive director at the British Red Cross said:

“We have listened to the powerful stories and testimonies of those who understand our asylum system best – people with first-hand experience of living in it and working with it. They have told us that our current system is failing to protect vulnerable people and is unintentionally putting them at risk of exploitation.  

“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you have come from, or how you got here; people seeking asylum in the UK must be kept safe. In the debate about managing migration we must focus not only on enforcement but also on humanity.

“The UK has a proud history of helping people fleeing war and persecution – we are privileged as a country to be able to provide safety to those in crisis. By putting safety at the heart of our asylum system we can ensure people can live in dignity with the support they need whilst they wait for their case to be decided.” 

Vicky Tennant, UNHCR Representative to the United Kingdom said: 

“Asylum-seekers and survivors of trafficking often face heightened risks of exploitation due to their precarious circumstances. This report proposes a number of practical and cost-effective changes that would strengthen the UK’s system and ensure people are protected and do not fall through the cracks.”  

You can read the report here.

Notes to Editors     

The British Red Cross and UNHCR spoke to people seeking asylum who survived being trafficked, professionals who work with people seeking asylum and refugees, plus academics and experts who work in the field. All quotes and testimonies were made anonymous for the individual’s safety.  

The number of potential victims of exploitation identified and referred to the authorities has been steadily increasing year on year. In 2021, 12,727 people were referred to the authorities as potential victims of modern slavery/exploitation and 58 per cent reported being exploited in the UK.