Guest post by Sophie Cartwright, Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology and Senior Policy Officer at the Jesuit Refugee Service UK.

In the first eight months of 2019, an estimated 1,256 people who were or went on to be recognised by the government as potential trafficking survivors – or victims, in government terminology – were held in immigration detention in the UK. This figure reflects recorded instances, so the actual number of trafficking survivors held in immigration detention over this period is probably higher. The detention of survivors of trafficking represents an egregious failure to support them, and highlights a fundamental tension between the government’s stated commitment to combatting trafficking and its approach to immigration control. The experience of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK offers a window onto this situation, and shows how an exclusive focus on immigration control means that survivors go unseen and unheard.

Between March 2017 and February 2020, JRS UK supported 45 survivors of trafficking held in Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), where JRS UK runs an outreach service. The majority were Vietnamese men, trafficked to the UK and forced to work in cannabis factories, as detailed in this Topical Briefing. Following police raids, they had been arrested, charged with offences related to drug production, advised to plead guilty by duty solicitors, convicted and imprisoned. They had been transferred to detention facilities after completing their sentences. Many remained in detention for months. Most had not been not recognised as survivors; the Home Office operates the UK government’s process for identifying trafficking survivors. Within detention specifically, the Home Office is also responsible for referring people into that process – but this is in conflict with their primary roles to control and remove. In practice, immigration control is prioritised over survivor identification. Several were recognised yet were still kept “behind bars”. They all found detention deeply traumatic, often explaining that it evoked memories of being trafficked.

These men were seen through the lens of immigration control to the point that their vulnerability and personal histories were either obscured or deemed irrelevant. Many were also subjected to the failings of the criminal justice system, revisited on them within an immigration system that frequently justifies draconian measures by stoking fear around the figure of the ‘Foreign Criminal’. When Home Office caseworkers came to decide whether to extend their detention or release them, their history of trafficking was routinely misread as history of criminality or non-compliance with immigration rules, leading to continued confinement. Criminal convictions for cannabis production were routinely cited as reasons for extending their detention. People who had been re-trafficked within the UK, and so lost contact with immigration authorities, were said to have ‘absconded’ – and this too was used as a reason to extend their detention.

Most of these survivors were not recognised as such for a long time, often despite strong indicators of trafficking. For example, many explained they had been tortured by their traffickers. The Home Office had accepted evidence that they were torture survivors, but not that they were potential trafficking survivors. What is more, caseworkers acknowledged that some had probably been forced to work on a cannabis farm, but still kept them detained on the basis of their conviction for cannabis cultivation. The fact that they had been trafficked apparently did not matter.

The detention of trafficking survivors partly exemplifies a wider and well-documented practice of knowingly detaining people who have undergone serious trauma for immigration purposes. The Home Office’s ‘Adults at Risk in immigration detention’ policy lists criteria by which people may be considered vulnerable people, including being a survivor of torture or trafficking. Vulnerability is then weighed against immigration factors in decisions about continuing detention or releasing someone. The latter typically outweigh the former. To give a brief indication, in a 2017 inspection of Harmondsworth IRC by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, inspectors noted “in nearly all of the cases [of purported torture survivors in detention] we examined, the Home Office accepted evidence that detainees had been tortured, but maintained detention regardless.” A guide by NGO Medical Justice offers further analysis of the policy’s myriad problems.

Detention thus does not provide a context in which it is possible to recognise or respond appropriately to extreme vulnerability because it is set up for immigration control. In fact, detention itself is deeply traumatic and compounds and creates vulnerability, as demonstrated in recent research by JRS UK.  As in the cases of trafficking survivors supported by JRS UK, reviews of detention conducted by the Home Office tend to read those in detention with a hermeneutic of suspicion and leave little room to examine or care about personal histories or the complex realities that shape them. Consequently, the detention of survivors not only partly arises from a failure to identify them as survivors. It also perpetuates that failure, which inevitably obstructs attempts to prosecute traffickers. Detention is a poor context for disclosure of having been trafficked, because it further traumatises survivors and creates distrust of authorities. Several of those supported by JRS UK had been warned by traffickers not to seek help from police or other officials because they would be detained and deported. One man said he had assumed his traffickers had been lying – but now he realised they had been telling the truth. The detention of survivors plays right into traffickers’ hands.

The detention of trafficking survivors is cruel and undermines attempts to combat trafficking. In and through detention, human beings and their realities are disregarded for blinkered pursuit of immigration control. Ultimately, detention for immigration control is an inhumane, unjust, and hugely destructive practice and should be abolished.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Cartwright,S. (2020). The Routine Detention of Survivors of Trafficking in the UK: The Perpetuation of Exploitation. Available at: [date]