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Traffickers seen targeting EU citizens in UK as post-Brexit deadline looms

Published: Updated:

Human traffickers will target and exploit vulnerable European Union (EU) citizens in Britain who fail to meet a deadline to apply for post-Brexit residency rights, campaigners said as they warned tens of thousands would miss this week’s cut-off date.

EU citizens who miss the June 30 deadline are set to lose the right to work and receive benefits, and activists and lawyers fear that uncertainty over new immigration rules will enable criminals to tighten their grip over trafficking victims.

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“Those who perpetuate ... slavery and trafficking take advantage of things like this (deadline),” said Luke Piper, head of policy at the3million, a campaign group for EU citizens in Britain. “I think it will be devastating for vulnerable people.

“Criminals could tell people: ‘You missed the deadline, you’re in trouble, the police will deport you, stay with us – we’ll protect you’,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

More than 5.6 million EU citizens have applied for residency rights in Britain so far, but many people - including victims of trafficking - are unaware of the deadline and face language barriers or lack access to legal advice, according to advocates.

Carita Thomas, an immigration lawyer for ATLEU - a charity providing legal representation to trafficking survivors - said the deadline would create a “cliff-edge” with traffickers seeking to mislead or instill fear in people who miss it.

“Traffickers are very clever and clued up on how the immigration system works,” said Thomas, who has urged the government to scrap the deadline. “They can use any deadline as a coercive measure.”

Britain’s interior ministry said it will accept late residency claims where there is a reasonable excuse.

“We have a well-established process for prioritizing cases of vulnerable applicants, including victims of modern slavery,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Yet activists said victims of trafficking and slavery would not know they could apply after the deadline and that it was unclear at what point late claims would no longer be considered.

Eliza Stachowska of campaign group Hope for Justice said the issue was complicated by the fact that victims often lacked documentation to show how long they had been in Britain and the COVID-19 pandemic had hampered access to immigration advice.

Coronavirus restrictions and the economic slowdown have left trafficking victims in Britain less likely to receive help and at risk of falling further into debt bondage, according to activists.

About 10,613 potential victims were referred to the interior ministry for support last year, while a 2020 study by charity Justice and Care and The Centre for Social Justice think-tank estimated Britain is home to at least 100,000 modern slaves.

Many victims come from EU countries such as Lithuania, Poland and Romania, and may be exploited at farms, factories and construction sites, in the sex trade, or for domestic servitude.

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