“We are at the beginning of something…” Supporting survivors of trafficking during the Covid-19 pandemic

 

Spotlight on: Anushya Kulupana, Scottish Anti-Trafficking & Exploitation Centre (SATEC) and Supporting Survivors of Trafficking during the Covid-19 Pandemic 

Today we are speaking with Anushya Kulupana, an Associate Solicitor in SATEC, who represents survivors of trafficking and labour exploitation in Scotland.  We ask her what it’s like to work as a human rights lawyer, about her career path, and what has changed over the last year during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Can you tell us a bit about how you became a human rights lawyer and an anti-trafficking specialist?

My career in human rights started at the Scottish Refugee Council where I worked with people who were really struggling to access their rights. I started to see the law as an important tool, and sometimes the only tool, for securing access to justice for these individuals. I also became aware of human trafficking and witnessed the particular difficulties people who had experienced this suffered in a system ill-adapted to meet their needs.

I then worked at the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance (TARA) directly supporting trafficked women. While providing a vital service for women, I was often frustrated by the limitations of what I could achieve for them, because very often, positive change could only be affected through the law. I also gained insight into the work of human rights lawyers through supporting women going through legal processes such as asylum and identification as victims of trafficking. So I decided to expand my skillset by qualifying as a solicitor.

What challenges have you seen in providing legal advice to survivors of trafficking during Covid-19?

The immediate change for our clients was the lack of information on what was happening.  Their financial and social situations meant that they had little or no access to mainstream information or media so were excluded from important messages about the rapidly changing landscape due to Covid-19 and how it would impact on them. They were scared and isolated.

On a personal level, we worried for our clients, who had all experienced complex trauma. We worried how they were coping and there were times when we had to connect them to vital services or just be there – not as lawyers, but as a friendly voice on the phone to check how they were, reassure them, share important messages, and make sure they were taking the necessary precautions.

As professionals we still had to work to legal deadlines to meet and that meant moving our work online.  Our model for working with clients is face-to-face; this is important for establishing relationships of trust and working with complex issues. We practice a trauma-informed approach; we need to be able to look for cues of distress and trauma, which often manifest as subtle micro-expressions, so telephone appointments were not always appropriate.

We were fortunate that a lot of our adult clients were linked into TARA and Migrant Help (funded by Scottish Government to support adult victims of trafficking in Scotland) and many of the young people we work with were supported by Aberlour Scottish Guardianship Service (funded by the Scottish Government. These partners helped our clients access data so we could start working face-to-face through video calls.  This worked better for established clients, but it was more difficult with clients who were new to us. It took time to establish relationships of trust.

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What has SATEC done to respond to the challenges of Covid-19?

We are fortunate to receive emergency Covid-19 funding from the Community Justice Fund and Foundation Scotland to continue and expand our activities to respond to the challenges of providing legal advice during the pandemic. We were able to adapt our procedures, making sure we provide remote legal services in a safe way to our client group. A trauma-informed approach needs time, and the funding supported this.

The funding has also allowed us to continue our weekly legal surgeries hosted by TARA remotely providing free, confidential early legal advice to survivors of trafficking.  We were also able use the funding to increase and expand our legal surgeries hosted by Migrant Help.

We co-produced a multi-lingual ‘Know Your Rights’ factsheet, funded by the EU ASSIST project, with women who had lived experience of trafficking. Through the emergency funding we are now creating a suite of detailed information leaflets for all adult third country nationals who have experienced trafficking, on a wide range of topics, such as trafficking, immigration, legal, health, housing, education, employment.

We have also launched a weekly second-tier advice line for organisations and professionals, with the emergency funding supporting staff time and increasing our capacity to work with our partners around the challenges of Covid-19 and EU withdrawal.

So, what challenges do you see coming up over the next year?

There was initially a drop in referrals when we went into lockdown . It wasn’t that people weren’t being exploited, but the avenues for them to get help or come to the attention of the relevant services were reduced. Global research indicates that the pandemic has caused an increase in trafficking because more people are vulnerable to exploitation, and that traffickers have adapted the ways they operate, often moving online. We are very concerned about this ongoing exploitation and we need the legal tools to tackle these new techniques of exploitation.

Referrals increased after the initial lockdown and the additional funding allowed us to manage these, but we are expecting a further increase when restrictions are fully lifted. We believe that Covid-19 has intensified exploitation in some areas, such as commercial sexual exploitation. We hear that demand has increased and women are being forced to engage in riskier behaviour. We hear that people are being sexually exploited in exchange for food and shelter.  We hear there is an increase in child sexual exploitation. We hear that sexual exploitation through online sites has massively increased.

That is worrying.  How can we meet those challenges?

It feels like we are at beginning of something….

We will need the capacity and flexibility to respond to this expected surge in demand and new challenges arising from the intensity of exploitation that may be ongoing though the Covid-19 lockdowns.

We need resources to be put aside to meet the needs of people who will require our help, including resources for legal assistance to respond to the new ways traffickers are operating. It will only be when restrictions lift that we will truly be able to assess the damage done.  It is growing bigger by the day and we worry that when we do get back to “normal,” we will already be behind.

What is your advice to a student who wants to get involved in this area of work?

You have to have a passion for this kind of work. It really is a privilege to work with our clients but the system you are working in is harsh and frustrating, so it is important that you keep your passion going to have longevity in this area. It is a difficult job, so you also need to be resilient; you don’t want to burn out or even become part of that system. It is also very important that you make sure you look after your wellbeing and take time to do things you enjoy doing. You can’t ‘serve others with an empty cup’ as they say.

JustRight Scotland is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SC047818) which provides legal services through its limited liability partnership, JustRight Scotland LLP which trades as JustRight Scotland (SO305962). This firm has been authorised to act as solicitors by the Law Society of Scotland (Registered No 53703). Our Registered Office is: Room 1, 1st Floor, Libertas House, 39 St Vincent Place, Glasgow, G1 2ER.

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