‘Growing awareness’ sees number of potential victims of modern slavery rise by 52%

The number of people referred to the Home Office as potential victims of modern slavery in the UK has risen by 52%.

A total of 10,627 people were referred as potential victims in 2019, up from 5,141 in 2017 and 6,986 in 2018, according to new Home Office statistics.

The most common type of exploitation for both adults and under-18s was forced labour, where people are made to work long hours for little or no pay, against their will, often under the threat of violence or actual physical harm. The International Labour Organization estimates that forced labour in the private economy generates $150 billion in illegal profits per year.

Referrals in the UK are made into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the government’s process for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery – via ‘first responders’, who are specified statutory authorities and non-governmental organisations.

The Home Office report states: “The continued upward trend in referrals…is thought to be partly as a result of increased awareness of modern slavery and the NRM process… The increase in NRM referrals is largely driven by the continued rise in identification of potential victims that were exploited in the UK only.”

As in 2018, the majority (6,564) of individuals referred to the NRM claim they were exploited in the UK only.

The three most common nationalities referred last year were from the UK (2,836), Albania (1,705) and Vietnam (887).

Hope for Justice CEO Ben Cooley said: “We believe that the rise in the number of potential victims of modern slavery is due to several factors, including an increase in the number of people reporting suspected slavery, and a growing awareness among the general public about this heinous crime.

“The true scale of modern-day slavery is largely unknown and underestimated because this is a hidden crime. Many victims are deeply traumatised and may be fearful of coming forward due to being under the control of traffickers, believing their lives or family members’ lives will be at risk if they escape, failing to self-identify as victims, or their movements are restricted. Others refuse to engage with the police or authorities due to fear.

“The official statistics do not necessarily reflect a rise in the number of victims of trafficking – rather a positive move towards identifying more potential victims.”

Of the potential victims referred last year, 3,391 were female, 7,224 were male, one was transgender and the gender of 11 people was unknown.

A total of 43% (4,550) claimed that they were exploited while aged 18 or under.

The Home Office is responsible for making a ‘reasonable grounds’ decision on whether or not an individual could be a victim of modern slavery. Adults who are given a positive ‘reasonable grounds’ decision have access to support, including accommodation, subsistence, legal aid and counselling, until a ‘conclusive grounds’ decision on their case is made.

Adults with a positive ‘conclusive grounds’ decision are currently entitled to at least a further 45 days of support to allow them to ‘move on’ from NRM support, whilst those with a negative decision receive nine days of support. Improvements to the NRM as part of the NRM Reform Programme are in the process of being implemented, the Home Office states.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Growing awareness of modern slavery and better training for first responders has improved the way this abuse is tackled and led to more referrals of potential victims.

“The support offered through the National Referral Mechanism is helping victims rebuild their lives. At the same time, the ground-breaking Modern Slavery Act has given law enforcement agencies the tools to target the perpetrators of this horrific crime.”

A total of 79% (8,429) of people referred into the NRM last year are awaiting a conclusive grounds decision, compared to 38% (2,654) of referrals made in 2018, as at February 10 this year, when the data was collated.

A total of 7% of referrals made in 2019 have received a positive conclusive grounds decision so far. The Home Office report stated that “this is as a result of the current length of time taken to make conclusive grounds decisions”.