Slavery is term that many of us associate with colonial worker exploitation in less developed countries. However, in 2016, there were more than 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the U.K.. The hostile environment towards migrant workers, based on threats of deportation, will make many people less likely to reach out for medical assistance in the COVID-19 pandemic.

To many, people trapped in modern slavery may appear as if they have a normal job. But there is one key difference. All of their movements and interactions are controlled by someone else.

These individuals often live in overcrowded conditions, with insufficient access to washing facilities. In 2019, 22 people who were victims of modern slavery were forced into sharing one room in Barking, East London, and a man in Birmingham washed in a canal as he lacked access to running water. Within the COVID-19 pandemic, these living conditions make social isolation for hundreds of thousands of people an impossibility and provide a catalyst for rapid viral spread.

Mr Nguyen, a Vietnamese national, is just one example of a victim of modern slavery who was treated as if he were a criminal and issued with a deportation notice by the Home Office, despite concerns for his life if he returned to Vietnam. He was forced to work on a cannabis farm by a drug gang and described how, following a police raid where he was arrested and sentenced for 15 months, he  “felt more freedom in prison” compared to the farm. However, for people like Mr Nguyen, the fear for their lives if they face deportation may mean that remaining in exploitative work is less dangerous than reaching out for essential healthcare support. This fear of the authorities may have dire health consequences for people trapped in modern slavery and the wider U.K. population, and risks strengthening the power of traffickers who exploit their workers.

The COVID-19 virus does not discriminate. It’s in times of crisis that impacts of insufficient support is felt the hardest by the most vulnerable. If we cannot extend support to those who are most vulnerable in this crisis, we will be unable to protect the wider U.K. population.

Five years since the UK Modern Slavery Act came into force, the U.K. government must extend the freedom from fear of deportation to foreign nationals who are victims of modern slavery today. Through this, these individuals could be more empowered to come forward to access vital healthcare support and safe accommodation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These vital measures would follow the government’s call to local councils to house all rough sleepers in line with national efforts to ensure that no one is left behind in the unprecedented impacts of the current pandemic.

Megan is studying Geography at the University of Cambridge, with a keen interest in global health governance, feminist political ecology and human rights. She has previously volunteered on a water and sanitation project in Nicaragua. During the project, her team increased clean water access in a rural community and organised women’s empowerment groups and classes on good hygiene with children in schools. Find her on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/megan-cousins-098048164/