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Modern slavery survivors in prisons

Research on the role and responsibility of prisons in securing the rights of modern slavery survivors in the UK.

Published: 28th November 2023

This is a summary of the report: Tackling the blind spot of the UK anti-slavery regime: the role and responsibility of prisons in securing the rights of modern slavery survivors, based on research conducted by the University of Essex and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the UK in partnership with Hibiscus Initiatives. The project was funded through an open call for proposals by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), which in turn is funded and supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Key findings

  1. Although no statistics are consistently collected and analysed on the number of survivors of modern slavery in UK adult prisons, there is a high likelihood of unidentified survivors of modern slavery currently being imprisoned across the UK.
  2. Challenges to the identification of modern slavery survivors in prisons in practice include: barriers to disclosure in prison; an apparent lack of systematic information-sharing between prisons and the designated Home Office Competent Authorities; and prison staff not being authorised to act as First Responders. These noted challenges often appeared to be further compounded by a need for more training and awareness raising for both prison staff and potential survivors of modern slavery in prison.
  3. Both survivors formally identified through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) as well as those potential survivors whom prison staff have reasonable grounds to believe to be victims of modern slavery, are entitled to support in line with Articles 10 and 12 of the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings (ECAT) and Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). However, even when adult survivors of modern slavery in prisons are identified through the NRM, a lack of specialised support is reported. The research findings highlight unmet needs for appropriate accommodation and specialist mental health support in prisons. Adequate and coordinated support with different actors is also found to be crucial in order to prevent retrafficking of modern slavery survivors both in prison and following their release. Furthermore, once survivors are bailed or released, awareness of rights and entitlements is key to ensuring that specialist support can be quickly accessed.
  4. The research found several examples of good practice in the identification and support of survivors of modern slavery, but they were often described as ad hoc and dependent on individual commitment and effort rather than systematic institutionalised practice.

"I mean, if they ended up in prison, for [one] reason or another, it means that they weren’t supported, because I think that’s the quickest way (…) it’s the quickest way to put us into prison rather than supporting us.”

Survivor interview


Little is known about what happens when individuals who have experienced modern slavery end up in prisons, and whether and how international and domestic rules designed to protect and support survivors of modern slavery apply behind prison walls.

Modern slavery survivors may end up in prison for several reasons. Sometimes, individuals are trafficked with the sole purpose of being compelled to engage in criminal offences, such as shoplifting, cannabis cultivation, or drug trafficking. Individuals who were compelled to commit crimes may benefit from the non- punishment principle enshrined in several international treaties as well as the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015, although it must be noted that this principle does not provide a complete immunity from prosecution and punishment, including imprisonment. In other cases, there may be no nexus between one’s experience of modern slavery and the offending which resulted in their imprisonment, meaning that their imprisonment may be warranted.

Whether or not the imprisonment of survivors of modern slavery is justified in the first place, international instruments that contain obligations of states to protect victims of human trafficking – most notably, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Council of Europe Convention Against Trafficking in Human Beings (ECAT) – do not offer a basis for excluding from such protection individuals who have committed criminal offences. On the contrary, international law requires that every victim of human trafficking is identified and offered support and protection without discrimination on any grounds. Accordingly, prisons, like all other public authorities, are duty-bound to identify and support victims of modern slavery.

In the UK, the policy on victim identification accompanying the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 (‘Statutory Guidance’) stipulates that prisons ‘have responsibility for identifying and supporting survivors of modern slavery and for raising awareness of the issue amongst prisoners/individuals in detention and staff’. Until 2022, there has been no guidance to allow operationalisation of this responsibility, and even after such guidance has been issued for England and Wales by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) (‘HMPPS Modern Slavery Guidance’), there has been little evidence from practice to demonstrate that this duty has been duly discharged. Accordingly, there is currently no knowledge of how the existing mechanism for victim identification and protection operates in prisons in the UK.

This research is therefore the first attempt to collect empirical evidence on the experiences of adult modern slavery survivors in prisons. It marks the first opportunity to evaluate whether and how the recent HMPPS Modern Slavery


The researchers carried out a comprehensive desktop review of academic and other literature; analysed relevant domestic and international legislation and policy; carried out 8 interviews and one focus group discussion with adult survivors of modern slavery who had been in prison in the UK in the past; carried out 46 semi-structured interviews with NGOs, HMPPS professionals including Modern Slavery Single Points of Contact (SPOCs), solicitors, police officers, and other experts; and ran a survey with all SPOCs in prisons in England and Wales, completed by 50 out of the 117 SPOCs.

The research considered both survivors who were convicted for crimes they committed as a result of modern slavery and those whose conviction appears to be unrelated to it. The state has a legal obligation to identify and provide support for both.