By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Oct 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's anti-slavery chief said on Wednesday new government measures should encourage victims to seek help, but charities called for quicker, tougher action to tackle a trade that enslaves tens of thousands in Britain alone.
The government this week announced three initial changes as it reforms the so-called National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which decides whether or not someone is a victim of slavery, and offers support ranging from counselling to housing.
The overhaul will see these decisions taken away from police and immigration officials and instead handled by Britain's interior ministry, while independent experts will review all negative rulings in a bid to boost scrutiny of such cases.
Anti-slavery groups and law enforcement have previously criticised the NRM, saying it leaves victims at risk of being re-trafficked or scared to seek help for fear of being deported.
"This is a welcome move towards a system that is more accessible to victims, meets their needs, and gives them longer-term support," Britain's first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I thought the NRM needed to come away from immigration services and the National Crime Agency (NCA) .. so that victims will be less reluctant to seek support," added Hyland, who on Monday said improving the system was his top priority this year.
Anti-Slavery International said data from the NRM showed that non-Europeans entering the system were four times less likely to be recognised as victims of trafficking or slavery.
"No slavery victim should be treated differently because of their nationality," said Klara Skrivankova of Anti-Slavery.
Announcing the changes, Britain's anti-slavery taskforce - which unites ministers, police leaders and intelligence chiefs - said it would also introduce a new digital system, making it easier to refer victims for care, and boosting data collection.
Anti-trafficking charity Unseen welcomed the digitisation of the NRM, but called for quicker and more stringent assessments of the status of potential victims when they enter the system - to streamline a process that currently lasts at least 45 days.
"It's a half step forward, but lots of holes need to be filled if we are going to have an NRM that does more than just count victims," said Unseen executive director, Justine Currell.
At least 13,000 people are estimated by the government to be victims of forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the figure is the tip of the iceberg.
Anti-slavery chief Hyland said this week that this estimate was far too low, with the true number in the tens of thousands. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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