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New U.K. law allowing deportation of illegal migrants benefits traffickers, says former PM

Former British prime minister Theresa May, in an interview with CBC News, says U.K.'s Illegal Migration Act, which took effect in July, will undermine efforts to tackle modern-day slavery and human trafficking, and leave victims more vulnerable.

Theresa May says victims will be afraid to get help under law decried by rights groups

Human traffickers could exploit U.K.'s Illegal Migration Act, Theresa May warns

2 days ago

Duration 0:59

Featured VideoFormer British prime minister Theresa May is warning that the current government's effort to curb illegal migration might deter those who have been trafficked from seeking help. 'If we're going to catch the slave drivers, we need the victims and survivors to be able to come forward,' she said in a recent interview with CBC.

Multiculturalism in the United Kingdom has not failed, according to former British prime minister Theresa May, despite claims to the contrary by British Home Secretary Suella Braverman in a recent speech.

"We have welcomed so many people over the years who have come and been part of our society and formed part of what the United Kingdom is today," May said in an interview with CBC News when asked about Braverman's comments.

"That diversity is important. We see it in our politics. We see it in our politicians. We have the first British Asian heritage prime minister in the United Kingdom. We've had three female prime ministers."

In a keynote speech delivered at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, Braverman criticized multiculturalism for making no demands on people to integrate.

"They could be in the society, but not of the society," she said. "And in extreme cases, they could pursue lives aimed at undermining the stability and threatening the security of our society."

The daughter of immigrants, Braverman followed that up with a speech on Wednesday at the governing Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester, England.

In her speech, she attacked policies implemented under "the banner of diversity, equity and inclusion" and warned that a "hurricane" of migration was on the way.

A man carries a child as a large group of people walk on a stoney shore.

Rights groups slam new U.K. migrant law

The comments have set off a familiar debate about the language employed around issues of race and migration — as well as speculation that Braverman might be lining herself up as a potential leadership candidate if the Conservatives lose the next election under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

"Everything Braverman says is about a future leadership election," opposition Labour MP Ben Bradshaw told the Independent newspaper. "It's a classic dog whistle to the Tory membership who are increasingly right wing."

A woman with long, dark hair, wearing a white suit, gestures as she speaks at a podium.

Braverman has championed the United Kingdom's controversial Illegal Migration Act, which seeks to give the government the authority to deport asylum seekers arriving illegally, either to their home country or to a "safe" country such as Rwanda.

The government has struggled to stop migrants and asylum seekers from making often dangerous journeys in small boats, crossing busy shipping lanes in the English Channel in bids to reach British shores.

Some 25,000 people have arrived this way since the start of the year. More than 45,000 people used the route in 2022.

Rights groups have criticized the British legislation as a contravention of international humanitarian law by removing an individual's right to claim asylum, regardless of their protection needs. The United Nations also sounded alarm bells on July 20, the same day the legislation received royal assent.

May calls on Canada to join initiative

Theresa May fears legislation contained in the Illegal Migration Act will undermine efforts to tackle modern-day slavery and human trafficking. She introduced Britain's Modern Slavery Act in 2015, when she was in the job now held by Suella Braverman.

On Thursday, the former Conservative leader, who served as prime minister from 2016-19, launched the Global Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, an international initiative that she called on Canada to join.

Today I’m launching the Global Commission on Modern Slavery &amp; Human Trafficking – an initiative that aims to restore political momentum on eradicating slavery, trafficking &amp; forced labour from our world. <a href="https://t.co/COgCTzuu8Q">pic.twitter.com/COgCTzuu8Q</a>

&mdash;@theresa_may

"There is so much more that can be done in countries across the world," she told CBC News on Wednesday. "It's estimated that there are about 70,000 people in slavery in Canada today. That may be an underestimate."

May added: "We need to ensure we're taking the action, that governments are involved. I want to see the Canadian government involved in my global commission."

About 50 million people around the world are believed to be in servitude, forced labour or slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index.

"My concern is that traffickers … the slave drivers could use [the threat of deportation in Britain's new legislation] to persuade their victims, to persuade those they've enslaved, those they are exploiting, not to try to seek help," May said.

WATCH | About 70,000 people in Canada live in slavery, Theresa May says:

Canada has about 70,00 people living in slavery, says ex-U.K. PM

2 days ago

Duration 0:39

Featured VideoFormer British prime minister Theresa May is urging Canada to join her efforts to tackle modern-day slavery, saying estimates suggest about 70,000 people live in slavery in Canada today. That may be an underestimate.

"And if we're going to catch the slave drivers, we need the victims and survivors to be able to come forward to give the evidence necessary."

Anti-slavery campaigners say it's already hard enough to encourage victims to come forward.

'People feel incredibly afraid'

"What we've seen in the United Kingdom is that the rhetoric surrounding immigration has already started to have an impact on victims of modern slavery," said Jessica Turner, a spokesperson for London-based Anti-Slavery International.

"It creates a culture of disbelief," she told CBC News in an interview. "If they think people aren't going to believe them, that might make them too frightened to come forward."

Turner also said that the legislation makes no allowance for the fact that people might be in Britain illegally because they're victims of human trafficking.

A long three-storey grey building with windows sits on a barge floating in the water.

"If they do come forward and if they do try to prove what has happened to them, then they might find themselves at risk of either prosecution or immigration enforcement," she said. "That's why we've been warning that these laws are going to be so dangerous because it's making people feel incredibly afraid."

Theresa May has herself been accused of fanning the flames of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the past. As home secretary, she introduced legislation aimed at creating a "hostile environment" for illegal immigration.

It included heavier documentation checks and requirements, and ultimately contributed to what's known as the Windrush scandal — where thousands of legal U.K. residents were mistakenly classified as illegal immigrants.

The Windrush was the name of one of the first steamships carrying people invited to Britain from the Caribbean to work after the Second World War. Few were given official documentation. Commonwealth nationals (including those from the Caribbean) who lived in the U.K. prior to 1973 were automatically granted British citizenship but without paperwork.

May was serving as prime minister when it began to emerge that many in the Windrush generation were having trouble proving their legal status.

Those who couldn't started to lose access to health care and other social benefits that many had enjoyed for over 50 years. Some were even detained and deported.

A woman with short grey hair, wearing a white top and a red jacket, signs a book.

An independent review by Wendy Williams entitled Windrush Lessons Learned, which was published in 2020, found "institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation within the department."

It made 30 recommendations, including the creation of a migrants' commissioner to look out for their interests.

Earlier this year, Suella Braverman, the current home secretary, said she would not implement all of the recommendations, including the post of a commissioner, even though the government had previously accepted all of them.

In her recently published book, The Abuse of Power: Confronting Injustice in Public Life, May wrote that in hindsight, her reference to "hostile environment" years earlier "was not a good term to use."

In her interview with CBC News, she also said that all of the recommendations contained in Williams's review should be implemented.

"The point of the review was to say why did this happen? And I think those recommendations for change within the Home Office should be put in place."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is the Senior International Correspondent based for CBC News based in the London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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