Britain has sent home or aided the return of dozens of slaves to trafficking hotspots including Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam in recent years, raising concerns this put people at risk of being re-trafficked due to a lack of support in their home countries.
The government subjected 36 victims to "enforced returns" between 2014 and 2018, according to Home Office (interior ministry) data obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation under Britain's Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
Another 41 ex-slaves were found to have undergone "voluntary returns" in this period although activists said they likely saw no other choice without the right to remain in Britain.
Anti-slavery charities said these numbers could be just the tip of the iceberg as it did not include people returned before their case was decided or after a claim was denied, or anyone exploited who did not come forward due to fear of reprisals.
"These figures are obviously deeply concerning ... we can't just be returning people to their exploiters," said Kate Roberts, UK and Europe Manager for Anti-Slavery International.
The full picture of how Britain handles people freed from modern slavery is unclear as authorities do not publish data on how many survivors have applied for asylum or how many are allowed to remain or sent home.
But several charities said Britain should monitor and ensure long-term support - from community reintegration to training and jobs - for former slaves returned to high-risk nations to reduce the risk of them falling prey once more to human traffickers.
"Whatever support exists is piecemeal, there needs to be a large-scale safe returns programme," Roberts added. "Visits must be done in country to check people will be safe, with follow-ups and measures to ensure they won't be at risk of further abuse."
She spoke in light of recent recommendations from the United Nations and the United States - made in its annual Trafficking in Persons report - calling upon Britain to provide specialist, tailored and lasting support to survivors who return home.
A Home Office spokesman said Britain was ensuring that victims of trafficking and slavery "get the support they need".
"The Voluntary Returns Service includes help with flights, travel documents, medical aid and reintegration, and the Home Office works closely with other governments and organizations to ensure safe returns," he said.
The Home Office said it funded support and reintegration help for trafficking victims in Nigeria and Vietnam, but did not provide any further details about the nature of such assistance.
"There are concerns when people go back, particularly with voluntary returns, that the work done in the country of origin is ... rather cursory," said Sara Thornton, Britain's second anti-slavery commissioner, who took up the post in May.
"NO OTHER CHOICE"
Britain has called itself a world leader in the anti-slavery drive, but is considering the findings of a government-ordered review of a landmark 2015 Modern Slavery Act amid criticism it has not been used fully to tackle the crime and help survivors.
People who report being enslaved can access support - from healthcare and housing to legal aid - while the British government decides whether or not to recognize them as victims.
But activists said a lack of long-term follow-on support for confirmed victims left many to choose between homelessness and the risk of fresh exploitation in Britain, or an uncertain return home and threat of facing their traffickers again.
Rachel Smith from the Human Trafficking Foundation (HTF) said she feared that many survivors were giving up after waiting months or even years for a decision on asylum without the right to work, and going home in "extremely worrying circumstances".
Almost half of 1,717 confirmed non-European victims identified between 2015 and 2017 were not granted the right to stay in Britain, according to a report last month by the British Red Cross and anti-slavery charities Hestia and Ashiana.
"Regarding voluntary returns, many people will feel like they have no other choice," said Smith, HTF's project assistant.
Several concerning returns have taken place in recent years, found research last month by the HTF and the U.N. migration agency - the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
A lack of reintegration support meant one victim was unable to return to his family home because his traffickers also lived there; another was provided cash by the Home Office but this was taken by their exploiter after returning home, the study found.
"We are seeing gaps in return and reintegration arrangements which is a cause for concern since it may put human trafficking survivors at risk," said IOM UK Chief of Mission Dipti Pardeshi.
DETENTION AS DETERRENT?
About 7,000 suspected slavery victims were uncovered in Britain last year - up a third on 2017 - with British, Albanian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Romanian the most common nationalities.
Most of the ex-slaves who were subjected to enforced returns or left voluntarily since 2014 came from Albania, Vietnam, the Philippines, Nigeria, China and Romania, the FOI data revealed.
A separate Thomson Reuters Foundation FOI request last year found Britain had refused asylum to at least 275 ex-child slaves from nations such as Vietnam and Afghanistan since 2012, raising fears many could have been sent home and re-trafficked.
"The Vietnamese will continue to be exploited ... without a comprehensive, long-term reintegration program that provides a legitimate way to repay their debts and support their families," said Mimi Vu, an independent Vietnam-based trafficking analyst.
A report last month by data project After Exploitation found that about 73 suspected slavery victims decided to go home voluntarily from 2016 to 2018 before their case was ruled upon.
After Exploitation also found that more than 500 possible slaves were detained by the government in 2018 - in breach of Home Office guidelines - and said detention could be being used in order to pressure suspected victims to go home.
"For some victims, returning home is a positive step," said Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation.
"However, for many others, the risk of re-trafficking, reprisals from trafficking gangs, and being shunned by family and community due to stigma makes returning a dangerous option."