The number of potential victims of modern slavery in the UK has risen to the highest level in more than a decade, new Home Office figures show.
A total of 12,727 potential victims of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour were referred to the Home Office’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) system in 2021, a 20% increase compared with 10,601 in 2020 and 10,611 in 2019.
Despite the rise in reporting, modern slavery and human trafficking remains a hidden crime, one that is significantly underreported. While the latest figures give an insight into the endemic scale of the problem, Hope for Justice believes they do not reveal the true extent of the problem.
Paul McAnulty, Hope for Justice’s UK & Europe Programme Director said: “The year-on-year increase in the number of victims of modern slavery identified in the UK in the latest NRM statistics serve to give an insight into the endemic scale of the issue. Importantly, 90% of those referred received a positive decision meaning there were reasonable grounds to believe they were victims of modern slavery.
“The statistics show how confidence in reporting and the maturity of the mechanisms of support available have both improved over time.
“However, what the figures sadly don’t reflect are the large cohorts of survivors who choose not to engage with the NRM (which is currently estimated to be 1 in every 5). There are many reasons a survivor may not wish to engage with the NRM, but more often than not this decision is based on fear, and a lack of confidence in the treatment they are likely to receive.
“There are growing concerns that – if the Nationality and Borders Bill is passed – this confidence will decline further, and more survivors will sadly refuse to engage with the NRM, and will even more worryingly push an already clandestine and complex issue even further underground.”
The Home Office figures for 2021 represent the highest number of referrals since records began in 2009, when the number was 552.
The data captures those who were referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK government’s framework for identifying victims of modern slavery – or via the Duty to Notify (DtN) process.
The key statistics published today are as follows:
– 12,727 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the Home Office in 2021, representing a 20% increase compared to the preceding year (10,601)
– the number of referrals received this year is the highest since the NRM began in 2009 (previously 10,611 in 2019)
– 77% (9,790) were male and 23% (2,923) were female
– 58% (7,434) of potential victims claimed exploitation in the UK only and 31% (3,883) claimed exploitation overseas only
– a higher proportion of referrals claimed exploitation overseas only in 2021 (31%) than in 2020 (26%)
– 50% (6,411) of referrals were for potential victims who claimed exploitation as adults and 43% (5,468) claimed exploitation as children
– for adult potential victims, labour exploitation was most reported (33%; 2,141), whereas child potential victims were most often referred for criminal exploitation (49%; 2,689)
– the most common nationalities referred this year were UK, Albanian and Vietnamese
– 12,665 reasonable grounds and 2,866 conclusive grounds decisions were made this year. Of these, 90% of reasonable grounds and 91% of conclusive grounds decisions were positive
– the Home Office received 3,190 reports of adult potential victims via the DtN process, a 47% increase from 2020
What is concerning is that the number of adults identified as potential victims of modern slavery but who do not wish to be referred for formal support has increased by a huge 47%, up from 2,175 in 2020 to 3,190 in 2021.
These DtN statistics represent those who are identified by first responders such as the police, local authorities or border control, but who do not consent to further engagement with the NRM process.
There are many reasons why potential victims do not ask for support, such as a fear or lack of trust for authorities, often resulting from negative experiences during their exploitation, previously being failed by services, concerns over their immigration status, not self-identifying as a victim, or fearing retaliation from their perpetrators if they disclose details.
Regardless of the reason for not engaging with the NRM, this decision sadly leaves potential victims at risk of re-trafficking, and without access to safe housing, legal advice or caseworkers.
The percentage rise in suspected victims who are not asking for support is more than double the percentage rise in those who are being referred to the NRM.
This suggests that potential victims who are eligible to be considered for support are now less willing to engage with the government’s support system than they were two years ago.
Hope for Justice together with every other anti-trafficking charity in the country is calling on Parliament to scrap Part 5 of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will make the process for accessing support more complex, less fair and detrimental to victims.
Phillipa Roberts, Head of Policy and Research (Solicitor) at Hope for Justice, said: “This question of why so many victims do not wish to enter the NRM system warrants more investigation. Hope for Justice has significant concerns that ‘hostile environment’ policies are discouraging victims from coming forward and entering official systems, raising the risk of them being driven back into exploitation or re-exploitation.
“This situation will only worsen with the Nationality and Borders Bill in its current form. We urge the Government to completely scrap the deeply damaging Part 5 of the bill. We also urge the Government to implement ECAT (Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings) in its entirety; and also fulfil promises made in 2017 to ensure the NRM system is victim-focused at the point of referral. This includes instigating pre-NRM ‘places of safety’.
“We emphasise the need for legally aided pre-NRM legal advice as part of this, which is compliant with established good practices as detailed within the Slavery and Trafficking Survivor Care Standards and Principles that Underpin Early Support Provision for Survivors.”
Photo credit: From the series Invisible People © Rory Carnegie for National Crime Agency