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Rethinking how we undertake research in the UK modern slavery space

Debbie Ariyo blogs on how to make equality, diversity and inclusion meaningful in modern slavery research.

Published: 27th July 2023

Our network at AFRUCA Safeguarding Children, the UK BME Anti-Slavery Network (BASNET), recently completed a joint research project exploring Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in publicly funded modern slavery research with St Mary’s University Twickenham, University of Nottingham and the University of Sheffield, funded by the Modern Slavery PEC.

We are really enthused by the outcome of this research and the implications for our sector. This was the first time a small charity would lead a Modern Slavery PEC research project. For us at AFRUCA and BASNET, this research provided an opportunity to highlight a key issue that for too long had remained unaddressed. This is in relation to how modern slavery research can be “enriched” so it becomes a tool for empowerment, helping to give voice to the voiceless in our sector. These are people with lived experience and communities affected by modern slavery, enabling everyone to play their part in addressing this poignant issue.

Research has always been portrayed as an academic endeavour, within the sole purview of academia. Yet our experience demonstrates there is a wealth of untapped knowledge, experience and expertise held by those who are most marginalised in our sector. This gap between the ‘purveyors’ of research and those affected by modern slavery has been demonstrated by how, so far, many of the known or publicly funded research projects on modern slavery have been insufficiently informed by those affected, and therefore have failed to “dig deep” into many modern slavery and human trafficking issues experienced by marginalised communities.

For example, there are known instances of intersection of equality and modern slavery issues where research has failed to intervene at all. Take important and topical issues such as the use of juju and oath rituals in the sex trafficking of African women, domestic servitude in specific communities, or even sex trafficking and exploitation of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gender individuals. At some point, these two typologies – trafficking using juju and oath rituals and domestic slavery, featured prominently on the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) data with some of the highest numbers of potential victims. We also know that many LGBT individuals refuse referrals into the NRM due to a lack of safety and protection.

There have been some prosecutions and convictions for these offences. Yet, to my knowledge, not a single academic research project has ever been conducted into these issues to capture learning, which demonstrates how research has failed to advance the practice experience of those affected to inform policy improvements and changes.

Our project has demonstrated that for modern slavery research, its processes and outcomes to be impactful, EDI can no longer be tick-box exercises to placate funders. Modern slavery research can also no longer only focus on “low-hanging” issues that are easy to research and fund.

Our project has demonstrated that for modern slavery research, its processes and outcomes to be impactful, EDI can no longer be tick-box exercises to placate funders.

Debbie Ariyo

If Equality, Diversity and Inclusion must be truly embedded in how we undertake modern slavery research, then funders and researchers must rethink how research is structured and funded, so important issues affecting people with the lived experience and their marginalised communities attract the right partnerships, attention and funding. Modern slavery research should really encompass three equal partnerships with academia, practice and lived experience. This calls for active dismantling of the power imbalance that exists in how research is structured.

To truly decolonise how we research modern slavery issues, we must prioritise building capacity of organisations that represent affected communities and experts by experience to tell their stories. This would entail supporting them to engage in and develop research and evaluation skills based on their work and experiences. There are many ways this can be achieved - for example, organising specialist training programmes or developing specific modules in universities to provide research methodology training. This would enable community and survivor leaders to develop the capacity to undertake their own research, raise their voices and have access to the tools to tell their own stories.

But academia must also start to embed the principles of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in research. This includes improving policies, practices, orientations and making research more diverse, equal and inclusive from the moment ideas for it are formed. Funding bodies must make changes in how research is funded and what sort of research is funded, so important research which seeks to address important issues in marginalised communities is not ignored.

We can truly “enrich” research so it becomes a veritable tool of empowerment. This must be based on a strong and genuine effort to improve, not a tick box exercise.

Debbie Ariyo OBE is CEO of AFRUCA Safeguarding Children and Chair of the UK BME Anti Slavery Network