The National Referral Mechanism is the UK government system for the identification of victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. It involves two simultaneous processes: first, a Competent Authority’s assessment of whether the referred person can be considered (on conclusive grounds) to be a victim of modern slavery. Second, a ‘reflection and recovery’ period in which the potential victim receives initial support.
Rather than being independent of each other, the length of time given to recovery is directly determined by the length of time taken for the Competent Authority to conclude assessment of a victim’s status.
Consequently, victims are being left in a position of limbo in the NRM, unfortunately increasing anxiety about the future, rather than recovering from trauma.
The NRM is not intended to be a comprehensive system of support, but an initial period before a longer term recovery process. This period currently stands at a minimum 45 days as we await upcoming reforms, but the period of support received is dependent on the length of time the assessment process takes and has been as long as two years. In practice, the NRM is often the only support survivors receive, as no long term support programme is readily available.
As Competent Authority decisions are taking longer, support workers are facing demands to meet longer term needs of survivors under conditions and requirements based on short-term outcomes. Moreover, demands on survivors within the 45 days have challenges of their own which effectively add to the anxiety of victims and prevent them from the ability to ‘reflect and recover’ as the system was originally designed.
At the commencement of support, victims receive a letter from the Competent Authority informing them that they are entitled to 45 days of support. Immediately, survivors begin to think about what they will do at the end of those 45 days. As day 45 gets closer and no clear preparations are in place, anxiety increases. Once day 45 has passed, the survivor wakes up every single morning expecting to be given a 48-hour or two-week timeline to leave. In this period, they can seek legal advice about their options, but no applications can be actioned until a decision is made about their status as a victim.
The stress is only increased by the lack of long-term support following a conclusive grounds decision. The options for victims in practice are either to return to their country of origin – often where they no longer have a support network, are at risk of re-trafficking from perpetrator contacts, or that they no longer see as home after years away – or to pursue options for life in the UK. The former for many is not a realistic option, often escalating anxiety for fear of further uprooting and uncertainty. In the present ‘hostile environment’ to immigration, all non-British survivors of modern slavery choosing the latter face a rough ride of legal and financial battles to establish even the most basic foundations of shelter and rights to remain in the UK – all without support. This amounts to what many specialists call the ‘cliff-drop’ at ‘day 46’.
The most important foundation for trauma recovery, second to leaving the situation of abuse, is a stable and secure living environment. The 45-day recovery and reflection period lacks this necessity for recovery under the current system. Moreover, if the length of support given is contingent upon decisions from officials examining the strength of an account of trafficking rather than an assessment of the victim’s emotional and physical wellbeing, there lies a significant risk that support needs will be neglected.
Support organisations across the country are campaigning for a victim-centred, long-term approach to be offered by the government.
Organisations who have been working in this field offer excellent recommendations for reform based on extensive experience, and are reflected in Lord McColl’s Victim Care Bill, including automatic leave to remain for one year and a clear route of support for the same period following the reflection and recovery period.
The government has at its fingertips an opportunity to be leading in enabling victims of slavery to recover, but to do so, they must take on recommendations and must not neglect victim wellbeing for the sake of system-efficiency.