What was behind the increased numbers of Albanians we saw arriving in the UK by boat last year? Are they all exploiting the asylum and modern slavery systems? And is the government’s much-vaunted commitment to speedily return all such arrivals likely to be effective, or even legal?
These questions were addressed by our specialist solicitor Esme Madill in evidence she gave to the Home Affairs Committee in its recent Migration and Asylum inquiry.
The reality of how asylum claims are processed
Esme explained to the committee how the asylum system is not an easy system to scam. In fact, the scrutiny that young people have to go through when seeking protection can be as traumatic as the experience of the trafficking.
Esme also described how, in our Breaking the Chains project, a far greater percentage of clients are male – boys and young men. This is because the project works particularly with cases that are difficult—young people who are traumatised, unable to tell their stories or who have had previous negative decisions.
These young people usually have pre-existing vulnerabilities: poverty, domestic violence or exposure to blood feuds, learning difficulties, or physical or mental health problems, Esme explained. And while they often leave Albania because of poverty or because of domestic violence and thus may have not met the threshold for asylum, through travelling to the UK they become indebted to traffickers and are subject to exploitation.
The government’s new policy guidance on Albania and trafficking
The government’s newly issued Country Policy and Information Note (CPIN) on Trafficking from and within Albania aims to limit the basis on which such asylum seekers can rely on protection in the UK.
Yet the evidence the CPIN draws upon clearly shows a risk of trafficking and re-trafficking for such groups, despite its policy aims. Esme expanded on this in her written evidence to the committee.
The CPIN states: “In general, male victims of trafficking are not at real risk of serious harm or persecution.” Esme points out that this is unevidenced and seems unsustainable in light of a later paragraph which begins “there is limited information about the experience and treatment of male victims of trafficking, including the scale, nature and frequency of re-trafficking and other harm.”
There is a discernible tension between the objectives of providing guidance that will enable claims to be rejected and providing guidance that is founded in the evidence.
In the CPIN significant paragraphs have also been redacted which neither claimants nor their representatives are able to access, refer to or challenge. Esme asks: “Is the means by which the Secretary of State intends to go from the current 55% recognition rate in Albanian asylum applications to all Albanians in the backlog being removed based on secret policy and secret information?” – saying this would be unacceptable and potentially unlawful.
The claim that people are unfairly exploiting the modern slavery system
“What is the evidence that the modern slavery system is being exploited?” Esme points out that there appears to be none in the CPIN or the Prime Minister’s accompanying statement.
If there is indeed any evidence to show that the system is being exploited, she says, then the solution is effective decision making. The solution is not to raise the threshold, which is required by the ECAT and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and would otherwise render it incompatible with them.
At present, “objective evidence” is provided by the multiple indicators referred to in the statutory guidance as well as by the individual’s testimony.
Removing Albanians from the UK
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated when announcing his government’s raft of measure to tackle small boat arrivals: “we have sought and received formal assurances from Albania confirming that it will protect genuine victims and people at risk of re-trafficking.”
The CPIN similarly refers to “a comprehensive legislative and policy framework” put in place by the Albanian state – yet at the same time it recognises “there has been a gap in effectively implementing these measures.”
The current country evidence indicates that whatever the intentions of the Albanian state, it is not able to protect all citizens, including, presumably, the 55% of asylum applicants who get protection in the UK.
Sunak went on to say: “As a result of these changes, the vast majority of claims from Albania can simply be declared unfounded.” Yet nothing said by the Prime Minister and no evidence within the Home Office’s own country guidance on Albania justifies or provides evidence in support of that assertion.
The Prime Minister further stated that “over the coming months, thousands of Albanians will be returned home, and we will keep going with weekly flights until all the Albanians in our backlog have been removed.”
In effect his statement suggests that the government is abandoning the obligations under the Refugee Convention, ECHR and the Convention against Torture not to remove asylum seekers until satisfied, through a process in which only the highest standards of fairness will suffice, that removal will not violate the UK’s obligations under those conventions.
Esme warns that a publicly stated commitment to removing all Albanians in the backlog is irreconcilable with those obligations.
The impact on Albanian asylum seekers
Esme also cautions the need to be very careful about the language used when referring to any particular community.
Albanians are currently being singled out and vilified in the national press on the basis of their race or ethnicity. We have already seen the impact of this media coverage on the Albanian children and young people we represent.
Children and young people are the victims of Albanian trafficking gangs and other traffickers, and their mental and physical health has already been seriously compromised by their experiences of exploitation for the purposes of sex trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage and domestic servitude. Esme and other caseworkers are painfully aware that the use of language indicating that asylum claims by Albanians are all ill-founded causes fear and distress to our young clients. Those waiting for their claims to be processed fear their chance of success are hopeless and that they are bound to be removed to a country where they face persecution. This exacerbates existing mental health problems and places them at risk of further exploitation and harm in the UK.
Those already recognised as refugees are finding that their recovery from their experiences is hampered as the hostility in the media triggers their existing trauma responses, and on a practical level causes them to experience discrimination and racism on a daily basis as they attend college, university and apply for jobs.
Where victims of abuse are blamed for their own victimhood, Esme points out, the only beneficiaries are the perpetrators.
See below for links to Esme and other experts’ evidence to the committee:
The Home Affairs Committee Migration and Asylum inquiry
Video of the committee hearing on 7 December 2022
Transcript of oral evidence provided to the committee
Written evidence submitted to the committee
Esme Madill’s written evidence submitted to the committee