Is Border Force truly failing to identify victims of trafficking?

Posted by Kate Garbers on the 2nd March 2017 in Slavery, News, Modern Slavery Act 2015, Human Trafficking

In the news a few weeks ago, following an inspection and subsequent report: An Inspection of Border Force’s Identification and Treatment of Potential Victims of Modern Slavery, by the Chief Inspector of Borders, David Bolt, UK Border Force have been criticised for failing to potentially identify thousands of victims of modern slavery.

Unseen, whilst welcoming the findings of the report, wish to highlight the practical difficulties of consistent and successful identification of potential victims at the border and offer some potential solutions for consideration.

Frontline officers at the border do need to know what to do should a victim self-identify at their counter. They should know the indicators and be able to raise and flag concerns if they have them. Similarly, officials scanning arrivals halls need to be aware of indicators that may present in this environment and what powers are available to them to intervene as appropriate. We do however need to be cognisant that there are multiple entry points to the UK from air, sea and land. The border entry points and the time officials have to interact will vary considerably.

If an official at a point of entry to the UK is concerned about an individual, best practice is being able to directly access a safe place to discuss concerns and explain the support on offer. The development of Safeguarding and Trafficking teams (SATs) to cover all airports and ports is a good step forward by Border Force. Officers typically carry out frontline duties, but are available to support colleagues with advice and practical assistance where they encounter an individual who may be at risk. As the report identified there have been some issues with the training and delivery of this response from Border Force but SATs appear to offer the beginning of a promising and proactive approach to this issue. However, it is worth noting that regardless of the effectiveness of SAT teams, unless an individual (if an adult) once identified as potential victim consents to wanting support or admits they are a victim (assuming they are aware of this) there is currently under the UK system little that an official can do to prevent the individual continuing on their journey - beyond refusing entry.

Within a UK context the access point to services and support for potential victims of trafficking and slavery is via the national referral mechanism (NRM) and requires an individual, once identified to consent to be put into the system. This consent requires them to provide a signature confirming that their information can be shared with police, Home Office and Competent Authority agencies (UK Visa and Immigration and the UK Modern Slavery Trafficking Unit, run by the National Crime Agency). In Unseen’s experience the element of consent and knowledge that information will be shared with government agencies often results in individuals declining referral and support. The report concurs with Unseen’s frontline experience stating that the majority of adults identified by Border Force refused to consent to enter the NRM. This highlights a fundamental issue with the UK’s overarching response and approach to potential victims and means even if officials correctly identify, there is little they can actually enforce to protect or support a potentially vulnerable individual (unless they believe them to be under 18).

Profiling potential victims of trafficking and slavery and increasing screening and vetting accordingly is an incredibly hard task at the border. It is made harder as many potential victims enter the UK legally, on legitimate visas, and at point of entry potential victims may be unaware that they are to be exploited. As such they do not raise concerns for border officials and this adds further complexity.

Traffickers being identified at the border has the potential to be an easier task for border force staff. Monitoring the number of times someone has entered and left a country in a set period, travel patterns and routes taken could be employed for alerting officials to potential traffickers. However this is not possible with current systems in the UK. The UK Border Force system is unable to see how many times an individual has entered or exited the UK. If we want to identify vulnerabilities at point of entry to the UK and to monitor travel patterns we would need to move towards a US style system.

Disruption of traffickers will require increased cooperation between airside and landside enforcement agencies. Sharing information between these will be imperative. For example, concerns from a border agent could be passed to landside staff to monitor and local policing could be tasked to visit addresses given on a landing card to check out any concerns. The notion of ‘additional eyes and ears’ identified in the report by ground staff and landside police officers should be further explored in an attempt to increase the number of victims coming through ports of entry that are identified. Landside staff may be better placed to recognise, for example, the movement of groups of people or the same cars picking up groups of individuals on a regular basis.

The report states that often the primary option, if a trafficker is identified, is removal. Whilst we appreciate this approach removes the issue from our border it does not bring those perpetrating the crime to justice nor does it help further understanding about the methodologies of traffickers. We would advocate for increased collaboration between law enforcement agencies and better use of the Modern Slavery Act (2015) to arrest and prosecute those perpetrating this crime. Whilst the current practice of removing a perpetrator from the country is fundamentally what Border Force is designed to do, are we in a perverse way facilitating a trafficker’s ability to continue making the journey to the UK with the only deterrent being removal?

Self-identification, whilst rare, is not unheard of and potential victims may self-identify at point of entry. It is prudent to ensure relevant awareness raising paraphernalia is available in a variety of languages and placed in appropriate locations throughout border points. Providing the Modern Slavery Helpline number (08000 121 700) and other information for potential victims will assist and potentially increase both self-identification and awareness of the support systems in place should these be required later. Employing a policy of providing certain foreign national visa holders with a credit card sized information card, that include the helpline number should they find themselves being exploited after arrival may be worth considering.

Up to date risk profiles need to be constantly developed and reviewed, but as highlighted in the report, data, collation mechanisms and standardisation will be required to achieve accurate and usable risk profiles in relation to traffickers and those being trafficked. However, we have learnt that over time once a profile is produced traffickers will find varying modes of operation to avoid detection therefore recognition that this is not a static crime profile is a prerequisite.

Multiple planes, landing from multiple destinations and maybe with a 5-minute maximum interaction with one or all of the travellers present is arguably not the best time to be identifying potential victims of slavery. Information is not collated centrally or with one officer, and not available in real time, means that victims and modes of operation being utilised are difficult to identify. Work needs to be done to ensure there are effective and agreed processes in place to follow up individuals who are considered to be at risk once they are landside and Border Force could be a key agency in the provision of information to assist law enforcement to investigate such concerns.

We do agree that there is a need to relook at training modules, recording in a meaningful manner how many officers have completed training and monitoring the impact. We would recommend that Slavery and Trafficking teams (SATs) need to be a standard and well trained single point of contact at point of entry. Able to offer advice to colleagues and to sensitively ask questions and ascertain information from those they are concerned about. Therefore, they do require in-depth training as they should perform a similar role to SPOC (Single Point of Contact) within police forces. SAT officers should be required to build relationships with local partner statutory agencies, NGOs and local policing to follow up concerns if they don’t transpire to anything at a point of entry and be in a position to facilitate a multi-agency approach to this issue.

Border Force are in a difficult position and have to work out how to effective perform a dual purpose. They need to be able to protect the UK’s borders whilst identifying those who may be vulnerable. This will not always be easy to achieve. However, this does not mean that border officials should not be trained to understand slavery, the forms it takes and how it may present. Officials need to know what support is available to them and what they can offer to potential victims. There also needs to be a concerted effort to understand how different law enforcement agencies and other partners can support border officials and potential victims once they are allowed entry to the UK.

Whatever happens, the British public and other visitors to the UK will need to be mindful that if we expect Border Force to be a primary identification agency immigration queues will be longer, processes slower and questioning intensified. Are we ready for this inconvenience, is it politically expedient and do we truly believe this is the right agency to be left holding the primary identification mandate?

Kate Garbers is the Managing Director at Anti-Slavery organisation, Unseen and has worked in the sector for the last 9 years.