‘We need a system that is hostile to slavery, not to its victims’

From the series Invisible People © Rory Carnegie for NCA

From the series Invisible People © Rory Carnegie for NCA

In the UK, victims of modern slavery and human trafficking can access support once they demonstrate their case to the point where a ‘competent authority’ “suspects but cannot prove” that they are in fact a victim of human trafficking. If this is demonstrated, they receive from the competent authority – that is, the Home Office or the National Crime Agency’s Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Unit – a ‘Reasonable Grounds’ (RG) decision, granting access to initial support.

This standard of proof is assessed based on a three-point criteria for adults: acts, means and purpose, and two-point for children: act and purpose. These are based on the definition of trafficking in the Palermo Protocol*.

To be provided with support, a person needs to convince the competent authority that he/she could meet these criteria. For victims of trauma, this is not straightforward because a) they do not know the criteria, b) different parts of the story will seem more relevant to them and c) the impact of trauma on the brain is such that a person is often unable to give a coherent account, or in more extreme cases may have completely wiped it from memory. This difficulty is heightened when the victim is being interviewed a short time after leaving exploitation.

The outcome of this is often hours of questioning by a first responder. Depending on who this first responder is, the victim is likely to have no history of relationship or foundation of trust. Moreover, most first responders require that indicators of trafficking are sufficient to justify going out to meet the potential victim, so it is likely the victim will have had to give a similar account a short time before being interviewed. Unfortunately, the difficulty of having to repeat accounts has in cases been overwhelming for victims and they have consequently disengaged as a result, leaving them vulnerable to destitution at best and re-exploitation at worst.

The case has been made that such questioning is necessary in order to filter out those who really are victims and those who are posing as victims. In contrast, those seeking to pose as victims are likely to be more versed in the above than legitimate victims of exploitation simply seeking escape and refuge.

In recent months, Hope for Justice and other charities working to identify victims have identified a clear shift in the attitude of certain first responders towards victims of trafficking and slavery. They are witnessing more negative decisions than ever before at both reasonable grounds and conclusive grounds stage. It is difficult to obtain data on the number of being denied support at RG stage, as they are not kept on public record, but data is available for the second-stage decision with the standard of proof on ‘balance of probabilities’ (a Conclusive Grounds decision, or CG)

In 2017, only 13% of potential victims received a decision from the competent authority that they were, on the balance of probabilities, a victim of modern slavery. The other 87%, despite initially having a positive RG – suspect but cannot prove – were still waiting, or had received a negative decision.

Experts have shared that in their opinion, many cases receiving negative CG decisions are ‘straightforward’ cases of trafficking with ‘clear’ indicators.

Failures to identify at this early stage not only harm the confidence of victims seeking help in future, but directly fails the national duty to prevent slavery and protect those affected. The knock-on effect of this will be fewer prosecutions, if victims begin to view the system of support as unsympathetic to their needs. If, however, authorities develop an approach that is trauma-informed and victim-centred, victims will be encouraged that their experiences were unjust, their support is deserved, and they will be empowered to act as witnesses and give evidence against their traffickers. What we need is a system that is hostile to slavery, not to its victims.

*The Palermo Protocol definition: 

1. The act (what is done) ‘Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons’;

2. The means (how it is done) ‘Threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person’;

3. The purpose (why it is done) ‘For the purpose of exploitation… Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs’ (Note there is no requirement for the purpose to have been achieved, so a person who is rescued before exploitation occurs is still a victim of trafficking).