Legal challenge to UK Transit Visa system that leaves migrant fishers victim of human rights abuses
Human rights lawyers are challenging the Home Office over visa arrangements that left three Ghanaian fishermen the victims of modern slavery in the UK.
Posted on 17 June 2023
On behalf of the three who the Home Office recognised as victims of trafficking after they were rescued from a TN Trawler vessel by the charity Stella Maris, Leigh Day is investigating a judicial review challenge to the transit visa system as a breach of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The transit visa system was set up to enable seafarers and mariners passing through the UK to reach a ship departing the UK within seven days. However, Leigh Day says it is well recognised that the transit visa system is exploited by companies to carry out widescale fishing inside and just outside UK territorial waters in order to evade laws that protect employees, including the National Minimum Wage Act 1998.
The result is that those who are brought to the UK to work on fishing boats in UK waters are at significant risk of trafficking and modern slavery. Workers are tied to working on specific vessels for prolonged periods of time, without being able to leave the ship. Many have described mistreatment and poor working conditions including excessively long working hours and pay amounting to below half the minimum wage.
Leigh Day has sent a pre-action protocol letter to the Home Secretary on behalf of the three fishermen, signalling the start of the judicial review process. It says the transit visa system led directly to the three being victims of trafficking and to them working in appalling conditions for TN Trawlers. The visa and its restrictions were used by TN Trawlers to intimidate and control the three men. They felt unable to leave the vessel even when it was in port, and resorted to calling Stella Maris, who called the police.
The failure of the transit visa regime to provide practical and effective protection for victims of modern slavery, including the three Ghanaian fishermen, is a breach of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits slavery and forced labour, says the letter. Article 4 also entails a procedural obligation on the state to investigate situations
of potential trafficking.
Leigh Day’s letter also notes that an important part of the s.49 Modern Slavery Act 2015
statutory guidance relating to the definition of forced or compulsory labour is inconsistent with Regulation 2(3) of the Slavery and Human Trafficking (Definition of Victim) Regulations 2022 and therefore unlawful.
The regulations state that the consent of a person to their working situation is not relevant to whether they are in fact a victim of slavery. However, inconsistently with the clear position under the Regulations, the Guidance states that consent is a factor in forced and compulsory labour.
The Home Secretary is asked to amend the Guidance in line with the legal obligations under the Regulations in order to set out clearly that the consent of a person to any of the conduct alleged to show that a person has been subject to forced or compulsory labour is irrelevant.
Leigh Day solicitor Carolin Ott represents the three fishermen together with George Collecott and is investigating the judicial review application on their behalf.
Carolin Ott said:
“Our clients have suffered ill treatment and abuse in circumstances where they came to the UK to work hard and support the fishing industry. We are concerned that the transit visa scheme unlawfully permits exploitation of migrant fishers for the purposes of forced labour. The Home Secretary has obligations to support and protect potential victims of trafficking. She is also required to investigate instances and risks of trafficking and forced labour, but it does not appear that either of these obligations are being met in the context of the transit visa scheme. We look forward to receiving a comprehensive response to our pre-action letter.”
Separately, Leigh Day partner Nichola Marshall is investigating civil claims on behalf of fishers who have come to the UK on the transit visas and have been subject to human rights abuses while employed by the fishing industry.
Anyone who has been affected by transit visas or could assist in our investigations, and would like to discuss the matter on a confidential basis, can contact George Collecott on a dedicated WhatsApp number or email address below:
WhatsApp: +44 7827 834 555