Home Office officials have provoked outrage by stating that trafficked women from Nigeria can return to the country “wealthy from prostitution” and “held in high regard”.
The comments are found in an official policy and information note on the trafficking of women from Nigeria, which is used by Home Office decision-makers handling protection and human rights claims.
The guidance has been updated to include a paragraph on the prospects of trafficked women if they return to Nigeria, citing EU and Australian reports that make similar observations, which was not in the last version published in November 2016.
The paragraph reads: “Trafficked women who return from Europe, wealthy from prostitution, enjoy high social-economic status and in general are not subject to negative social attitudes on return. They are often held in high regard because they have improved income prospects.”
Dr Charlotte Proudman, a human rights barrister who represents women and girls in cases of gender-based violence, particularly female genital mutilation, said: “The Home Office’s deplorable policy on the trafficking of women in Nigeria shows the hostility that women victims face in claiming asylum in the UK. Suggesting that trafficked women are wealthy and enjoy a [high] socioeconomic status is fundamentally wrong.
“The women that I represent in immigration courts often suffer from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and are always destitute. They have usually been raped repeatedly and beaten and their family have disowned them. Some even face the risk of violent reprisals on return home. The abuse they experience is akin to slavery.
“The picture painted by the Home Office is far from reality and serves only to further myths about prostitution and sex trafficking. The policy will no doubt encourage decision-makers on behalf of the home secretary to refuse even more asylum claims.
“The Home Office needs to issue an apology and immediately amend the policy.”
Kate Osamor, the Labour MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Nigeria, which has looked at the impact of trafficking, said among all the stories of trafficking they heard “there was no happy ending”.
“It’s very concerning,” she said. “It shows the Home Office doesn’t trust people who go through these experiences. You’d expect authorities to take them in, listen and unpack their experience and not treat trafficking like it’s a job.
“This is advice to civil servants who don’t even meet the people, it’s all done by form. They should be told if they say they’ve been trafficked, they should meet them in person and unpack the experience.”
She added: “[According to] the reality and the data, and the people we met, no one ‘makes it’. They get caught up in trafficking and spiral. People are sold on the internet. Those people get caught up in prostitution and should be looked after. They’ve been beaten, their mental health is poor, they’ve been raped.”
Kate Garbers, managing director at Unseen, the modern slavery and trafficking charity, said the updated guidance underlined the contradictory nature of the government’s response to protection of slavery and trafficking, adding it “potentially shows that a hostile environment is still alive and well within the Home Office”.
She said: “We find it astounding that the Home Office has felt the need to include such a statement in its country guidance for Nigeria, especially as the reference points for this claim are unclear.
“We must be mindful to not conflate issues of prostitution as an economic migration activity and trafficking into the sex industry whereby all control has been taken away from an individual.
“The guidance notes that treatment upon return to Nigeria for those who have been trafficked is limited, and accepts they may face discrimination and marginalisation as well as persecution.
“Including the statements that trafficked women from Nigeria can return to the country “wealthy from prostitution” and “held in high regard” is likely to put doubt into a decision-maker’s mind and has the potential to justify poor decision-making about the risks faced upon return rather than focusing on assessing and understanding the individual for whom they are making a decision.”
The Home Office assessment states that a woman who has been trafficked for sexual exploitation and returns to Nigeria is unlikely to be at risk of reprisal or being re-trafficked from her original traffickers, but acknowledges they may be at risk of abuse or being re-trafficked depending on their particular vulnerability.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Sadly, modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking are not evils of the past. Through the Modern Slavery Act, the government is committed to ensuring victims get the support they need and perpetrators are brought to justice.”
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