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How Covid-19 limited UK's ability to identify people who experienced modern slavery

Prof Alex Balch analyses the figures of people referred as potential victims of modern slavery in the UK for 2020

Published: 18th March 2021

Today, the government published figures showing the number of adults and children referred as potential victims of modern slavery across the UK for 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased risks of modern slavery and presented serious challenges for those providing services for victims and survivors, but in the first quarter of 2020 the total reported number of potential victims fell for the first time after continual growth from 2016. This raises important and urgent questions about the changing face of modern slavery in the UK during the whole of 2020 and what this means for the resilience of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) system to identify those who may be experiencing severe forms of exploitation.

To get a more comprehensive analysis of the real impact of the pandemic and the ability to identify potential victims, the Modern Slavery PEC together with the University of Liverpool undertook additional research. We conducted independent analysis of the already available data for the first nine months of 2020 and carried out a series of interviews with First Responders - frontline workers, who refer individual cases to the NRM.

We found a range of impacts across the country, depending on type of First Responder, with notable differences for adults and children and certain types of exploitation.

Our research confirms that there were significant changes in patterns of exploitation identified and referred to the NRM in 2020. The fall in numbers was not evenly spread among the different kinds of exploitation recorded. There was a reduction in the number of adults identified as potential victims of sexual exploitation, but there was a much larger fall (in the second quarter) of adults, who may be victims of labour exploitation.

For children who were potential victims, the number of referrals did not appear to be as affected by the pandemic, meaning that they now make up a larger proportion of the total. Apart from a dip in the first quarter, there continues to be a worrying increase in the number of children exploited for criminal purposes as part of the county lines practice, and these are overwhelmingly boys that are UK nationals.

Because the NRM referral form is now online, First Responders were able to continue making referrals throughout the pandemic. However, one of the main reasons for the fall in referrals appears to be linked to reduced referrals by Immigration Enforcement and UK Visas and Immigration, and this correlates with reduced international movement of people into the UK.

The evidence from First Responders indicated marked differences across the regions in the UK. This is not fully reflected in the NRM data, which, although it now has more information about different exploitation types, it is still not fully broken down by geographical area.

Many of the First Responders told us that lockdowns, working from home and the reduced capacity to meet face-to-face with potential victims had a massive effect on their ability to build trust, which is key for proper identification and support, although this was different depending on location. They felt that the NRM statistics did not reflect their local experience and did not adequately capture the changing face of modern slavery in the UK, including concerns about a shift towards new, online forms of exploitation.

Our research points to a number of lessons that can be drawn from the NRM data, and from the challenges and experiences of First Responders throughout the pandemic. First, we need to explore new opportunities to overcome the challenge of decreased mobility in order to continue engagement with people who may be subject to exploitation – this may be at supermarkets and food banks and, currently, at vaccination centres.

Second, there could be connections made with other related areas where there have been innovative actions taken, for example the code ‘Ask for ANI’ (Action Needed immediately), which was launched to tackle domestic abuse.

Third, it would be very useful for the NRM to provide more granular data and analysis of the situation in different parts of the country. If the UK Government is committed to tackling modern slavery, the experiences of frontline staff and the data on referrals from the NRM need to be used in an intelligent way. Only then we can ensure that the response is dynamic and appropriate to local context, with an ability to react to new constantly evolving challenges that have been highlighted by the experiences during the pandemic.