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Top News UK: Record number of potential victims of modern slavery identified (2023)

UK: Record number of potential victims of modern slavery identified (2023)

There were 17,004 potential victims of modern slavery identified in the UK in 2023. The number of people referred to the Home Office’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) was up slightly from 16,921 in 2022. It is the highest annual number since the NRM began in 2009, though the rate of growth has slowed.

And a total of 4,929 potential adult victims were identified who did not consent to being referred into the NRM – the highest number since the Duty to Notify (DtN) process began. Since November 2015, specified public authorities must inform the Home Office via the DtN of suspected adult victims of modern slavery who do not consent to enter the NRM.

Potential victims may be fearful of presenting themselves to authorities, preventing them from engaging with the NRM and accessing support. Another factor may be First Responders’ (those referring potential victims into the NRM) capacity and delays in accessing legal advice.

Significant decrease in positive decisions

The Home Office figures, released on Thursday 7th March, also show a significant decrease in positive decisions at both ‘Reasonable’ and ‘Conclusive Grounds’ stage. A total of 55% of ‘Reasonable Grounds’ and 66% of ‘Conclusive Grounds’ decisions were positive in 2023, compared with 92% and 89% in 2022.

These figures highlight the damaging impact of legislation such as the Nationality and Borders Act. The Act changed the decision-making process and raised the threshold a person needs to reach to get a positive ‘Reasonable Grounds’ decision and enter the statutory support services. The threshold was revised in July 2023 following a court challenge. Despite this, the rate of positive decisions continues to remain very low.

Kerry Brighouse, Hope for Justice’s UK Programme Director, said: “The newly released NRM and Duty to Notify 2023 data reveals further alarming insight into the impact of the UK Government’s policy developments that underpin their pursuit to create a hostile environment for migrants, further exacerbating the problems with access to entitled support for many survivors of modern slavery. With just under half of the ‘reasonable grounds’ decisions being negative, and survivors having to wait for over three weeks for this significant decision, it is clear that the barriers to accessing support for survivors of modern slavery are increasing. This increased wait time exacerbates instability and risk during this early stage in a survivor’s recovery, increasing the risk of re-trafficking and further exploitation. 

“The continued rise in the number of women and children, reaching the highest number recorded to date, creates further concern in relation to data which shows that women can wait twice as long as anyone else for their final ‘conclusive grounds’ decisions.”

There was a significant drop in the rate of positive decisions being made by the two ‘Competent Authorities’.

“The data from 2023 confirms concerning trends around the issue of modern slavery, demonstrating more than ever the need to de-conflate immigration and modern slavery policies, and ensure that all survivors of modern slavery have access to an independent advocate at the earliest possible stage in their recovery.”

Kerry Brighouse, UK Programme Director, Hope for Justice

Of the ‘reasonable grounds’ decisions made by the Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority (IECA), 33% were positive. At the ‘conclusive grounds’ decision stage, 30% were positive. This is compared to 87% and 82%, respectively, in 2022.

In Quarter 2, 2023, only 6% of decisions made by the IECA were positive.

The conflation between human trafficking and immigration policies, compounded by the UK Government’s hostile policies may be preventing the successful identification and support of survivors.

The Home Office said: “From 30 January 2023, the threshold for a positive reasonable grounds decision was updated, which led to a reduction in the proportion of positive decisions issued. On 10 July 2023, the threshold was revised once more.”

Higher number of children and females referred to the NRM

Referrals for women and children were also at a record high. Children made up more than four in 10 referrals, totalling 7,432. Females accounted for 24% of all referrals, totalling 4,088, compared to 21% or 3,634 in 2022.

The top three nationalities referred to the NRM in 2023

One quarter of those referred to the NRM were of UK nationality (4,299), making it the most common nationality for referrals.

The Home Office said this was the same proportion as 2022 but that the number of UK nationals referred in 2023 was the highest for this nationality since the NRM began.

The second most commonly referred nationality was Albanian (24%; 4,052) and third was Vietnamese (6%; 991).

The number of referrals for Vietnamese nationals was the highest ever since the NRM began.

Reconsideration statistics

There were 888 reconsideration requests made to the Competent Authorities (696 for ‘reasonable grounds’ decisions and 186 for ‘conclusive grounds’ decisions). Of these, 60% (404) of RGD received a positive outcome. For CGD, 64% were positive. None of the disqualification decisions were overturned. The rate of positive decisions following a reconsideration request suggests that many referrals which initially received a negative decision should have instead received a positive decision. Many survivors have potentially been excluded from support while trying to lodge a reconsideration request.

Slower decision-making

The median time taken to reach a ‘Reasonable Grounds’ decision has risen sharply to 23 days, compared to six days in 2022. The Single Competent Authority (SCA) has a median time of 28 days, compared to an average seven days of the IECA. Changes in statutory guidance brought about by the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act resulted in major backlog, affecting the timely manner in which survivors should be identified and given access to support. This places them at higher risk of exploitation and re-trafficking.

Euan Fraser, Senior Policy and Research Advisor at Hope for Justice, said: “The changes to law and policy introduced in recent years, combined with the hostile rhetoric towards those seeking refuge in the UK, have created barriers to identification, limited access to vital support services and exacerbated vulnerability to exploitation. There is now a greater burden of proof on survivors before they can access the NRM: what other victims of violent crime must provide evidence before they are safeguarded? There is a growing culture of distrust: our teams have seen survivors increasingly reluctant to disclose exploitation or trust state authorities, and they have had to work harder in advocating for survivors to be able to access services and protection to which they are entitled.”

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