London — Female victims of human trafficking in Britain are being wrongly imprisoned in breach of a landmark anti-slavery law because the government is failing to identify cases where women have been forced to commit crimes, campaigners said on Monday.
Foreign women are often jailed for crimes such as cannabis production, prostitution related offences, fraud and begging - which are commonly carried out under coercion - despite being recognised as trafficking victims, said the Prison Reform Trust.
Of the 585 foreign female prisoners examined for the charity's report between February 2013 and March 2017, 45 were identified as victims or potential victims of trafficking.
"Despite legislation to protect victims of trafficking, current processes are failing to identify vulnerable women and prevent their prosecution for offences they were compelled to commit," said Katy Swaine Williams of the Prison Reform Trust.
Britain's 2015 Modern Slavery Act cemented its status as a world leader in the drive to end trafficking and has a defence for victims who are coerced or compelled to commit crimes.
"Victims of modern slavery should not be prosecuted for criminal offences they were forced to commit as a result of exploitation," a Home Office (interior ministry) spokesman said.
"We have commissioned an independent review of the Modern Slavery Act which will consider the implementation of the statutory defence for victims and help us identify what more we can do to tackle these terrible crimes," he said in a statement.
Britain said in July it would review the legislation amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, support victims, or drive companies to root out forced labour.
At least 5,145 suspected trafficking victims were uncovered in Britain last year - up from 3,804 in 2016. About half were women and after Britain, the most common countries of origin were Albania, Vietnam, China and Nigeria, government data shows.
The report found foreign women in British prisons receive little or no access to rehabilitation and poor planning for life after jail - as well as limited legal and immigration advice.
"Female trafficking victims are being told to stay underground, to only trust their exploiters and that if they go to the authorities, they will be seen as criminals," said Kate Roberts, head of office at the Human Trafficking Foundation.
"If they are criminalised and imprisoned - then they end up in an even worse position, and could be at risk of being trafficked again," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Britain is home to about 136,000 modern slaves - according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation - a figure 10 times higher than a 2013 government estimate.
- Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens