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What we learned from our funded research on survivor support

Liz Williams blogs on what looks promising and what the government should do to improve support for survivors, drawing on findings from Modern Slavery PEC-funded research.

Published: 15th November 2023

Today the Modern Slavery PEC has published a policy brief which draws on the findings and recommendations of seven independent research projects we funded, representing one of the deepest, wide-ranging, systematic and survivor-informed group of projects on survivor support in the UK. Our unique funding model means that research teams included a large number of partners both from academia and NGOs and were especially innovative and inclusive in the conduct of research.

This evidence challenges the way we understand established concepts and terminology around support and recovery and highlights the key factors and barriers to what can be considered success in providing support to people with lived experience of modern slavery. Here are few key takeaways.

Survivor-informed evidence redefines ‘recovery’ and its outcomes

Evidence shows that policies, research and interventions need to rethink ‘recovery’, and its outcomes for modern slavery survivors. We need to recognise the challenges and the limitations of the term, and that it’s a process that’s individual, non-linear, dependent on the wider context of people’s lives, that doesn’t fit within particular time frames.

Survivors described ‘recovery’ in many different ways, with some considering it as defining them by an experience of trauma, others describing it as an end goal, as a life-long process, or being able to make choices, plan for the future, or regain an ordinary life. Well-being in turn is interconnected, described by some as the ability to function and manage the impact of trauma on a day-to-day basis. Participatory research projects with both adults and children have identified sets of outcomes that can be used in the design, evaluation and policy and interventions.

Importance of long-term support and trusting relationships experience

Several projects highlighted that long-term holistic support is key for 'recovery'. Evidence was also clear on the importance of trauma-informed and culturally competent interventions, that lend themselves to building trusted relationships between practitioners and people with lived experience to promote safety and agency, minimising the potential risks of further exploitation. The evidence found that digital access - enabling the use of services, and connecting people to friends and family, and making every-day life easier- is particularly important for survivor wellbeing.

Practical and structural barriers to more effective support for survivors

Uncertainty around survivors’ entitlements, such as legal aid or psychological assistance, is a big factor in many survivors missing out on services. For British nationals, there is often confusion over whether they’re entitled to access to specialist support delivered through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) rather than other statutory entitlements, with some entering the NRM without their knowledge or consent.

The research identified a long list of practical barriers to accessing support such as language, geography, lack of funding, lack of capacity, long waiting lists, restrictive eligibility criteria, inconsistent provision, lack of childcare and lack of travel costs. The projects focusing on children added specific structural, systemic and discriminatory barriers to support for children and young people, particularly in navigating the immigration, asylum and criminal justice systems, as well ascare arrangements.

Wider systems such as immigration and housing often have a negative impact on survivors

Strong evidence pointed to wider systems that have a big negative impact on support and wellbeing for survivors of modern slavery. Big delays in immigration, asylum and NRM decisions, or procedural delays in criminal prosecutions contribute to the anguish and harm of limbo. Requirements to frequently retell traumatic experiences of exploitation and not being believed negatively can create additional harm, further impacting on recovery.

Across several projects, both adults and young people with lived experience of modern slavery described the need for physical and psychological safety as key for well-being, particularly highlighting appropriate accommodation. However, some survivors reported safety concerns in provided accommodation as well as difficulties in accessing long-term housing.

Consistency and coordination of services between specialised modern slavery services and wider systems affecting survivors’ lives such as housing, mental health services, the immigration and asylum system is key to improving support and long-term recovery.

UK Government has a good opportunity to revamp survivor support

The UK government has a specific window of opportunity to improve support for adults through the upcoming tender for the new Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract - and developing mechanisms for the meaningful participation of survivors in this process would be an important step forward.

We recommend that commissioned services (including equivalent specialist services in Scotland and Northern Ireland) are properly resourced to provide consistent and appropriate long-term support, take a trauma informed approach, consider how childcare and transport costs for adults attending appointments are compensated, and explore funding to assist survivors in re-engaging with family, social support networks and faith communities. Other recommendations include providing children and adult survivors with access to secure and appropriate safe accommodation and mental health services, and to improve the clarity of adults’ support entitlements in primary legislation.

Where next for research on survivor support?

The findings here raise new research questions – about remaining gaps in knowledge, about measuring the impacts of recommended changes, and how they should be implemented and translated into more effective policies and programmes. Ongoing political developments such as the passing of the Illegal Migration Act also present new areas where research is needed to understand their impact on the evolving nature of the system of support.

We’ll continue to work together with researchers, NGOs, service providers and of course people with lived experience to respond to these questions and developing a research agenda that is responsive and relevant, focused on impact, while continuing to innovate with respect to equity and meaningful survivor-involvement.

A big thank you to all the research teams, research advisory group members and research participants. The policy brief draws on the following seven independent research projects, we are grateful to all involved: