Modern slavery referrals hit record high with UK the most common nationality

Some 17,004 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the Home Office in 2023.

Aine Fox
Thursday 07 March 2024 18:04 GMT
Modern slavery is a term that includes any form of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Modern slavery is a term that includes any form of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)

The number of potential victims of modern slavery referred into the system reached a record level last year, with referrals for women and children both at all-time highs.

Some 17,004 potential victims of modern slavery – which includes any form of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour – were referred to the Home Office in 2023, up slightly from 16,921 in 2022.

It is the highest annual number since the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) began in 2009.

To access support and have recognition of their circumstances in the UK, victims of slavery and human trafficking have to be assessed under the NRM.

Potential victims of modern slavery in the UK who come to the attention of authorised first responder organisations – such as police, local authorities and Border Force – are referred to the NRM.

Females accounted for 24% of all referrals, totalling  4,088 – which is the highest on record to date.

Children made up more than four in 10 referrals, totalling 7,432 which was also the highest number on record.

A quarter of those referred to the NRM were of UK nationality (4,299), meaning it was 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).

Evidence shows that the new legislation could have a big impact on the willingness of some survivors to come forward and be formally identified or support criminal prosecutions, strengthening the hand of traffickers

Victoria Tecca

Most UK nationals were child potential victims (78%; 3,350), the Home Office said, adding that most Albanian nationals were adult potential victims (78%; 3,147).

For Vietnamese nationals, 61% (601) were adult potential victims and 30% (302) were child potential victims.

Most referrals (8,242) into the NRM last year came from Government agencies, the Home Office said.

Of these, almost two thirds came from UK Visas and Immigration (5,218) and a third from Home Office Immigration Enforcement (2,757).

Police forces and Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) accounted for just under a quarter (3,933) of NRM referrals last year, which was the same proportion as the previous year.

Local authorities accounted for 23% (3,944) of referrals, mostly for child potential victims, the Home Office said.

We remain deeply concerned that action is still not being taken to tackle the root causes of modern slavery, whilst the number of survivors is growing

Maya Esslemont

The average waiting time from being referred to getting a first decision, known as a reasonable grounds decision, was 23 days, up from six days in the previous year.

The Home Office said this was likely due to the change in guidance which came in from January 2023 which means that in most cases authorities “had needed to take additional action to request information demonstrating objective factors in order to make a decision”.

Last year also saw the highest annual number of conclusive grounds decisions (9,825), which the department said follows a trend since early 2021 due to the recruitment of more decision makers and “significant productivity and efficiency efforts”.

The number of suspected victims choosing not to be referred into the system also reached its highest level since the Duty to Notify requirement came in in 2015.

Last year the Home Office said it received 4,929 reports of adult potential victims via the Duty to Notify process, up from 4,580 in 2022.

The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Eleanor Lyons, said the “rise in the reporting of exploitation in women and girls, and children and young people is particularly worrying”.

She said tackling modern slavery and human trafficking “needs to be a priority for the Government”.

Ms Lyons added: “More must be done to prevent vulnerable people from becoming exploited, improve victim support and care to help each individual’s recovery, and crucially we must do more to tackle the criminals behind these horrific crimes.”

Evidence shows that the new legislation could have a big impact on the willingness of some survivors to come forward and be formally identified or support criminal prosecutions, strengthening the hand of traffickers

Victoria Tecca

Appearing before the Home Affairs Committee last month for the first time in her new role, Ms Lyons said modern slavery and human trafficking is “no longer the priority that it was” for the Home Office, as the focus has shifted to tackling illegal migration.

Victoria Tecca, from the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre, said the statistics overall show “the harsh reality of modern slavery today: that thousands of people are trapped in situations they can’t get out of, exploited in harsh conditions, facing threats, violence and intimidation”.

She said it is “particularly troubling” to see record numbers of children in the statistics and that the fact UK nationals were the most common is a “stark reminder that modern slavery can affect people from any country”.

She said more evidence is needed on why more people are choosing not to be referred into the system, but noted that the changes “have taken place against the backdrop of recent immigration legislation that is designed to deny support to modern slavery survivors who arrived in the UK irregularly and remove them from the UK”.

She added: “Evidence shows that the new legislation could have a big impact on the willingness of some survivors to come forward and be formally identified or support criminal prosecutions, strengthening the hand of traffickers.”

Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation which tracks modern slavery in the UK, said: “We remain deeply concerned that action is still not being taken to tackle the root causes of modern slavery, whilst the number of survivors is growing.”

She added that it is “vital that the Government addresses the gulf between survivors recognised by first responders and those who eventually go on to get support that addresses their needs.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to tackling all forms of modern slavery, including for individuals in the UK and children. That is why we are removing protections for criminals and those who make false claims.

“Decision makers consider all available evidence to determine whether a case should be referred to the system. This ensures victims promptly receive the support they need to rebuild their lives, whilst protecting the system from those who seek to misuse it.”

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