Victims ‘must be priority’ in anti-trafficking drive

The government has made good progress on tackling human trafficking but it must sign up to the European convention that protects victims, MPs and peers have warned.

A new report from the joint committee on human rights praises ministers’ efforts on what it describes as the “most serious human rights issue in the modern world” which had brought a “new and pernicious form of slavery” to Western societies.

It cites in particular January’s national action plan on trafficking and the first UK human trafficking centre which opened last month aimed at directing research, training and intelligence-gathering in police forces across the country.

But it says trafficking victims must be at the centre of every aspect of the government’s work in this area and warns ministers still have much to do – for example, it wants an urgent review of the support for child victims who had “very special needs”.

The committee calls for immigration laws to focus on helping victims, and in particular argues that the UK must sign up to the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings.

Ministers have so far refused to sign up to the convention, arguing that its provisions which allow victims to stay the UK for a “reflection period” after being freed from their traffickers could act as an incentive for fraudulent claims for residence permits.

However, the committee says there is “no realistic likelihood” of this happening and urges the government to sign up. It recommends victims be allowed to stay for three months after they are freed, and residence permits be given for up to six months.

“While it would be possible for the UK to construct a coherent human rights based approach to tackling human trafficking outside the convention, adherence to it in concert with the other nations of the Council of Europe will in our view greatly strengthen the framework of anti-trafficking policy in the UK, notably in relation to the core matter of the protection of victims,” it says.

A Home Office spokesman welcomed the committee’s recognition of the good work already undertaken in tackling “this horrendous crime”, and said the government would look carefully at the report’s recommendations.

He stressed that ministers “fully support” the aims of the Council of Europe convention and were considering how it could “best be harmonised with effective immigration controls”. But he reiterated the government’s concerns that it could be open to abuse.

“This would lead potentially to a waste of resources which would otherwise be used in assisting genuine victims of human trafficking,” the spokesman said.

In the meantime, the case-by-case approach would continue and the spokesman stressed that people would only be sent back to their own country where it “is deemed appropriate to do so”.