More slaves recorded than ever, is the UK’s response enough?

Monday, 26 March 2018 15:21 GMT

People cast long shadows in the winter sunlight as they walk across a plaza in the Canary Wharf financial district of London, Britain, January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

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The UK's "radical" reforms on identifying and supporting trafficking survivors - particularly children - do not go far enough

Patrick Burland, Senior Project Officer, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, at International Organization for Migration UK

Recent shocking video footage of a slave auction in Libya brought renewed attention to the global scourge of human trafficking and modern slavery. Given its hidden nature, estimates vary enormously but there are reported to be millions of people affected. Since 1994, IOM has supported over 70,000 trafficked persons around the world. Despite considerable sympathy and concern from the public for the victims, little attention is given to how states identify and support them after they have escaped exploitation and abuse. 

In the United Kingdom, potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery are identified and supported through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

In October 2017, the UK government announced changes to the National Referral Mechanism to radically improve' the identification and support for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.’ Welcome changes are being made in three critical areas: identifying victims, support for child victims, and the length of time that support is provided. Reforms in these areas are positive steps forward, but characterising them as ‘radical’ should be questioned as much more can be done.  

Figures released today show that 5,145 people were referred to the NRM as potential victims of trafficking in 2017, this was a 35% increase on the 2016 total. This enormous increase makes improving the identification and support for those referred to the NRM even more important and urgent.  

The first significant change is for a new expert body to be created in the Home Office to decide whether people are victims of human trafficking or slavery. This means that UK Visas and Immigration, a division of  the Home Office with responsibility for deciding who has the right to stay in the country, will no longer make decisions on trafficking cases. The announcement explains that this will ‘separate’ decisions ‘from the immigration system'. This comes in response to longstanding concerns about a correlation between a person’s immigration status and the likelihood of them being conclusively identified as a victim of trafficking or slavery. For example, available data on decisions for people referred into the NRM in 2015 show 90% of people from Poland and 85% from Romania, nationalities with a right to residency in the UK, were formally identified as victims of trafficking or slavery compared with 37% of people from Nigeria and 30% of people from Albania, nationalities who do not. This indicates a potential bias against recognising people as victims of trafficking if they are from countries where their right to residency in the UK is not pre-established. 

The announcement shows that the government acknowledges that decisions on trafficking and slavery should be separated from the immigration system. However, while UK Visas and Immigration will no longer make the decisions, the potential for conflicts of interest remains as they will continue to be made by staff within the Home Office; the government department responsible for all aspects of immigration control. The most effective way for the UK government to build an effective firewall between victim identification and immigration concerns is to move this process outside of the Home Office. 

Child victims are a concern as children comprised more than 40% of the referrals into the NRM in 2017. The government has said the changes will make the process as ‘child friendly as possible'One such change is the introduction of Independent Child Trafficking Advocates who will be tasked to act in the best interests of the child across the country. A government evaluation of a one-year trial of the service found that the advocates helped build trust with children and improved decision making on their cases. 

Changes to improve trust and decision making are welcome, but what is still missing is the provision of indispensable specialist support for trafficked children. Trafficked adults can access specialist support, but children – who are the most vulnerable and have the greatest support needs – are left out. IOM recently supported a letter written by the child trafficking charity ECPAT to the Home Secretary which called for specialist support to be provided to trafficked children in the UK. The idea that child victims should be able to access specialist support should not be seen as a radical proposal; it’s just good practice. 

The third important reform is that government has announced plans to increase support for victims to ‘at least 90 days.’ Increasing the length of time that support is provided is clearly an improvement. However, the increase to 90 days should be seen in the context of the average of 134 days it took for a person to receive a final conclusive decision on whether they were a victim of trafficking or slavery in 2016

If trained professionals cannot decide whether a person has been a victim of trafficking or slavery within 45 or 90 days, how can this be enough time for people to recover? A truly radical change to increase support is offered by the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill which would provide victims of trafficking or slavery access to support for 12 months. IOM supports this bill. 

Changes to how the UK government responds to identifying and supporting victims of trafficking and slavery have been long-awaited. A review of the NRM in November 2014 by the Home Office acknowledged, ‘Many level criticism at the current system and we have found that it does need to change'. Three years later, the government has announced a series of modest changes to the system. The proposed reforms should go further in improving support and identification for victims if the UK government wants to live up to its claims of leading the world in responding to modern slavery and human trafficking and of making radical reform to the NRM.