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Thousands of potential survivors decline formal identification and support

Thousands of potential survivors of modern slavery are declining formal identification and support, research finds

Published: 7th February 2024

Thousands of potential survivors of modern slavery in the UK choose not to be considered for formal identification and support every year, research found.

The research, carried out by the British Institute for International and Comparative Law (BIICL) and the Human Trafficking Foundation (HTF) and funded by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), investigated ways to improve the identification of adult survivors in the UK.

It focused on the content and delivery of training in this area, as well as on the reasons why adults who display signs of being exploited do not give consent to be referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the national system to identify and support victims.

Such cases can (and in the case of statutory organisations making a referral, must) be reported anonymously to the Home Office through the same online referral system, known as the ‘Duty to Notify’, or DtN. The project undertook a first-of-its kind-analysis of the Duty to Notify data for 2020 and 2021 (provided by the Home Office under a Memorandum of Understanding) and analysed reasons why adults with lived experience of modern slavery refuse to be referred into the NRM.

Duty to Notify

The number of adults with lived experience of modern slavery who did not provide their consent to be referred into the NRM has increased consistently since 2015 – from 65 cases to 4,580 cases in 2022 (with a minor exception in 2020, likely owing to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic). The 2022 number is more than double of that from 2020 (2,175).

Researchers noted different patterns depending on the nationality of adults for whom DtN reports were filed. For example, while a high proportion of British and Albanian nationals gave consent to enter the NRM (82%), the majority of nationals of Eritrea, Romania, Sudan and China chose not to be referred for formal identification and support.

The research team also analysed the reasons for not entering the NRM provided in the DtN reports. As the reason is an open box in the online DtN form and is not mandatory to complete, the reasons remain unknown in 41% of DtN reports. In reports where at least one reason was recorded, the most common was that the person denied the exploitation experience or victim status and/or that they thought the NRM didn’t apply to them (23%), followed by wanting to put the experience behind them (14%), being afraid of the traffickers (10%), a refusal to engage with the authorities (8%), and that the individual was already being supported outside of the NRM and felt sufficiently safe (8%).

The reasons differ greatly depending on nationality. For example, refusal to engage with the authorities was the top reason for British nationals (18%), followed by denial of exploitation (17%) and fear of traffickers (16%). For Eritrean nationals, by contrast, the desire to leave the exploitative experience behind them was the main reason indicated (47%).

Quality of referrals and training

The findings raised significant questions over the quality of modern slavery referrals made in the UK.

The findings indicate that some survivors of modern slavery were referred into the NRM without providing any consent, felt compelled to consent to a referral, were not given enough information to consent meaningfully, or were under the impression that entering the NRM involved a requirement to collaborate with the police.

One of the key issues that emerged from the research was the poor access to training for First Responders - professionals responsible for assessing indicators of modern slavery and referring consenting adults into the NRM and filing a DtN report. 10% of surveyed First Responders stated that they had received no training in relation to their role, and almost a quarter (24%) said they had to undertake training at their own expense.

The findings raised significant questions over the quality of modern slavery referrals made in the UK.

The researchers recommended for training to be made mandatory for professionals making NRM referrals and DtN reports, while also encouraging First Responder Organisations to consider partnering with other frontline organisations and modern slavery lived experience advisory groups in the design, development, delivery and evaluation of First Responder training programmes.

Dr Noemi Magugliani, Research Fellow at BIICL, who led the research, said:

“It is worrying that since 2020, proportionally more people have been refusing a referral into the NRM - and that many do so on the basis of incomplete or incorrect information about the mechanism. Shrinking access to the NRM will result in people with lived experience of modern slavery being pushed further into a condition of vulnerability that may lead to increased exploitation.”

Robyn Phillips, Director of Operations at HTF said:

“This research allows us – for the first time – to understand the reasons why adults who have experienced modern slavery may decline offers of support. The information offers insights into the control tactics used by traffickers, gaps in knowledge of referring authorities and can be used to create solutions to help survivors overcome barriers to accessing help.”

Liz Williams, Policy Impact Manager at the Modern Slavery PEC, which funded the study, said:

“This research shows that more needs to be done to make sure that adults who show signs of modern slavery get proper support, information, and are treated in trauma-informed way, to enable them to make an informed choice about whether to enter the NRM.

“We’re proud to have funded and supported this research and hope the evidence it produced can lead to improving the identification of people affected by modern slavery.“