Coronavirus: Modern slavery referrals fall for first time in four years during pandemic, figures show

Fears drop in support and lower visibility of exploitation during lockdown means fewer victims being identified

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 05 June 2020 01:07 BST
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There were 2,871 referrals of potential trafficking victims in the first quarter of 2020 - a 14 per cent fall from the previous three months, marking the first drop since 2016, figures show
There were 2,871 referrals of potential trafficking victims in the first quarter of 2020 - a 14 per cent fall from the previous three months, marking the first drop since 2016, figures show (Getty/iStock)

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Referrals of suspected modern slavery victims dropped for the first time in four years during the start of the coronavirus crisis, as experts warn the pandemic has meant exploitation is more hidden and has made it more difficult for people to escape their abusers.

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) — the UK’s framework for identifying victims of trafficking — received 2,871 referrals of potential victims in the first quarter of 2020, a 14 per cent fall from the previous three months, according to new government figures.

It marks the first time there has been a decrease since 2016, with the numbers having risen every quarter until now and hitting a record high last year when more than 10,000 potential victims of slavery were identified.

Kate Roberts, UK and Europe manager for Anti-Slavery International, said the sudden decrease in referrals was likely to be due to a combination of front line services being shut — meaning fewer opportunities for disclosure and identification — and fear among victims that with everything locked down, they might feel less able to escape.

“Exploitation will not have stopped while we’ve been in lock down, but today’s statistics show that people in exploitation have had less opportunity to escape or come forward. We know that people in insecure employment and with fewer options have been pushed further into the margins by the pandemic,” said Ms Roberts.

“There needs to be focused work to make sure that exploiters do not profit from people’s desperation, that there are practical options for people to avoid and escape exploitation and services in place to support people who have been identified as trafficked to keep safe and avoid re-exploitation.”

Tamara Barnett, director of operations at the Human Trafficking Foundation, echoed her concerns, adding that Brexit could also be a factor contributing to the drop in referrals.

“The Covid-19 pandemic that hit the UK in March might be the cause — both reducing jobs involving exploitation, but also preventing victims from being identified,” she said.

“Brexit might also have had a role both in reducing the numbers of traffickers bringing victims to the UK, and preventing those survivors from Europe from feeling confident in coming forward, since they are more likely to risk being treated wrongly as irregular migrants.”

Sulaiha Ali, solicitor at Duncan Lewis, said the current pandemic and lockdown measures had made it easier for traffickers to “hide their operations, making victims increasingly invisible and forcing them further underground”.

She added: “The dramatic increase in unemployment of undocumented migrants during the pandemic has also meant that significant numbers of people who were already vulnerable have found themselves in even more precarious circumstances. This means that the vulnerable population has now become even more exposed to the risk of severe exploitation as they try to identify alternative means to secure their livelihoods.”

The Home Office said the decrease was ”understood to have been influenced by the effects of restrictions implemented in the UK as part of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

A spokesperson told The Independent travel restrictions in other countries on people coming to the UK may have had an impact, while increasing numbers of people self-isolating and businesses shutting after the lockdown on March 23 would have meant people wouldn’t have been interacting with the police and local authorities as they would normally.

They added that the closure of high risk areas such as car washes and nail bars when the lockdown was fully enforced may have made victims less public-facing, and therefore less likely to be identified, but said the next set of statistics would provide a fuller indication of any trends.

The government announced at that start of April that people referred through the NRM living in safe houses, who would usually be required to leave after 45 days, would be able to remain for three months to protect them from Covid-19.

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