Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Faster decision-making would prevent keeping thousands of victims of human trafficking and modern slavery in limbo

Patrick Burland is senior project officer, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at International Organization for Migration UK and 2017 Human Trafficking Foundation Anti-Slavery Day Media Award winner.

Over recent years, the release of annual statistics on potential victims of modern slavery referred to the UK National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s official system through which victims are identified and provided support, has received ever greater attention from the media, politicians and general public. This has partly been fuelled by a decade of year-on-year rises in the number of potential victims.

The 2019 statistics, released last week, show a record 10,627 potential victims were referred to the NRM, 56% more than in 2018 and twice as many as 2017.

Over the coming months we will need to consider how the responses to Covid-19 around the world might impact upon human trafficking and modern slavery and the practices of human traffickers. However, the attention around the annual statistics, which has provided an important platform to raise awareness about human trafficking and modern slavery, has been diminished this year by the focus on Covid-19.

The NRM statistics are important and warrant scrutiny and discussion. They offer a window to better understand the nature of human trafficking and modern slavery in the UK and the responses to it.

The 2019 annual statistics are the first to be produced by the Home Office, following the transfer of responsibility for publishing the NRM statistics from the National Crime Agency. There are some positive changes in the way that the data is now being recorded and presented. However, there remains space for improvement.

The introduction of ‘criminal exploitation’ as a specific exploitation type for NRM referrals is a critical and welcome development. It has long been acknowledged that trafficking for ‘criminal exploitation’ is a significant problem in the UK. The most commonly recognised forms of this have been cannabis cultivation and more recently, the trafficking of British children into the so-called county-lines drugs trade. However, until 1st October 2019 such cases were hidden in the NRM statistics as they were recorded as ‘labour exploitation.’

The statistics on referrals for the last quarter of the year (October to December 2019) show why the introduction of the category of criminal exploitation was so important: 25% of adults and 56% of children referred during this quarter were recorded for criminal exploitation. The proportion of British children was even higher: 83% were recorded for criminal exploitation. It is a positive development that for the first time the NRM statistics can acknowledge the problem of county-lines and contribute to illustrating its potential scale. 

Arguably the most significant concern about the UK NRM is the waiting time to receive a Conclusive Grounds (CG) decision. The uncertainty of waiting for many months and years for a decision can undermine recovery and cause further harm. A Home Office review of the NRM in 2014 acknowledged concerns from those supporting victims that ‘delay in decisions can exacerbate a sense of confusion and fear about their future and impede them making a recovery.’ The charity Kalayaan has highlighted the impacts of long waiting times for a decision for victims without the right to work who may have to live on as little as £35 per week. 

Last month, five years after the introduction of the legislation, the Home Office published statutory guidance on the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.  The guidance explains that the decision maker ‘will make a Conclusive Grounds decision no sooner than 45 calendar days after the reasonable grounds.’

The NRM statistics do not provide specific details of how long decisions take. However, they unquestionably show that decisions are not coming shortly after 45 calendar days. The statistics reveal there are still a small number of people waiting for a CG decision who were referred to the NRM before the Modern Slavery Act was passed in 2015.

The 2019 Annual report shows that only 783 people referred in 2019 had received a CG decision, (of which 693 were positive) A total of 8,429 people who had received a positive reasonable grounds decision are still waiting for a CG decision. A welcome addition to the NRM statistics would be for the Home Office to provide information on the average waiting times for CG decisions for EU nationals, UK nationals and non-EU nationals. Furthermore, the Modern Slavery Act statutory guidance could be updated to include a target timeframe for CG decisions while continuing to accept requests to delay a decision so further information can be submitted.

Ultimately what is most important is that more decisions are made, more quickly. With the 2019 referrals and the historical cases from 2014 to 2018 there are now more than 11,000 people in limbo waiting for a CG decision with no idea when it could arrive. A decision which could help them move forwards in their life and help provide closure. It is this record-breaking number which is the real story behind the 2019 NRM data release.  

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