The impact of UK immigration policies on the antimodern slavery agenda

Dr Karen Latricia Hough, Sheffield Hallam University, UK.

Dr Kahina Le Louvier, University of Northumbria, UK.

With 69% of referrals to the UK’s modern slavery identification and support system coming from non-UK nationals,i modern slavery appears to be closely linked to international migration. Indeed, while historical slavery was abolished, systems of exploitation have remained that ‘reflect an industrialised and increasingly globalised world where the migration of labour – almost half of it female – to new, strange contexts makes it more vulnerable to enslavement’.ii Yet, if the two phenomena are connected, the UK approached them in contrary ways.

With the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the UK sought to take an internationally leading role in the fight against modern slavery, putting it on the global policy agenda and enacting a landmark piece of legislation to address it. At the same time, the UK continued to intensify its criminalising approach to immigration. Yet, as we show in this policy brief, hostile immigration policies that restrict entry to the UK and limit the legal, economic and social rights on migrants, including asylum seekers and survivors of modern slavery, have created vulnerabilities for people to fall into or remain in exploitative situations that undermine the success of the Modern Slavery Act.

To effectively address modern slavery, a victim-centred approach is needed that shifts the focus from rescue to prevention by implementing human rights based immigration policies that mitigate the vulnerabilities leading individuals to exploitation, and by placing more emphasis on the role of businesses and financial institutions.

In 2022, Home Secretaries have framed survivors of modern slavery as ‘abusers’ and trafficking as a matter that should be dealt with through stronger immigration enforcement. Modern slavery was therefore moved away from the minister for safeguarding to the minister for immigration in the Home Office. As these criminalising approaches to immigration and modern slavery continue to grow to new levels in the UK as well as in other European countries, it is important to highlight their impact on the increase of exploitative and undermining of international efforts to combat modern slavery. This brief contributes to this effort for highlighting research-informed policy alternatives.


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