Groundbreaking new research has uncovered the reality of survivors of modern slavery in UK prisons, many imprisoned for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers and has warned that the scale is likely to be much larger than currently known.
The project is the first comprehensive academic research which analysed the challenges around identification and support for modern slavery survivors in the UK prisons. It was conducted by the University of Essex and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the UK in partnership with Hibiscus Initiatives and was commissioned by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), which in turn is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Although the lack of any collected statistics makes it impossible to estimate the exact numbers, the research report concludes that the scale of this issue is likely larger than currently known as there are many challenges in identifying survivors of modern slavery in prisons uncovered by the research.
From the 50 Modern Slavery Special Points of Contact (SPOCs, the roles appointed in prisons in England and Wales only in 2022) surveyed by the research, 20 (40%) reported awareness of at least one prisoner with an NRM referral. However, two thirds of surveyed SPOCs (33/50) reporting a perceived likelihood of greater than 3 out of 5 that there were unidentified survivors of modern slavery present in their prison.
This comes in the context of the Government’s National Referral Mechanism statistics for 2022 revealing that ‘criminal exploitation’ was the second most common reported type of exploitation, with 41% referrals mentioning it either as the exclusive or one of the forms of exploitation experienced by the person being referred as potential victim of modern slavery.
The sense of this issue being underreported has been shared by other professionals interviewed by the researchers. One forensic psychologist said: “I’ve probably [seen over] a hundred over the last few years and it’s increasing exponentially.”
Another professional working in the Northern Ireland Prison Service said: “I know we have made a number of referrals […] and I know […] that the chaplains anecdotally would tell us that a large number of foreign nationals they see claim to have been either enslaved or trafficked.
“I’ve probably [seen over] a hundred over the last few years and it’s increasing exponentially.”Forensic psychologist interviewed for the research
Dr Marija Jovanovic from the University of Essex, who led the study, said:
“We like to think that countries deal with modern slavery by identifying and protecting survivors, whilst sending perpetrators to prisons. The reality is much more complicated, with many survivors being sent to prisons, sometimes for the crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers, instead of being protected.
“Shockingly, given how few convictions there are on modern slavery charges, it’s not out of the question that there might be more survivors than perpetrators in UK prisons”, she added.
The research identified numerous challenges for effective identification of modern slavery survivors in prisons, including insufficient awareness and training of prison staff, resource shortages and big barriers for survivors to disclose their stories.
“Shockingly, given how few convictions there are on modern slavery charges, it’s not out of the question that there might be more survivors than perpetrators in UK prisons”Dr Marija Jovanovic, University of Essex
A big problem is also a disconnect between prisons and the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the national system to identify survivors of modern slavery in the UK, resulting in prisons often not knowing there are survivors who are already in the NRM among their populations. Prisons themselves aren’t able to refer people as potential victims.
Not being recognised as victims of modern slavery means that they are unable to receive support in prisons, and even those formally identified as victims often do not receive specialist support, including mental health support, and face challenges in accessing support post release. Several people interviewed in research mentioned situations where survivors were imprisoned with their traffickers.
A person with lived experience of modern slavery who went to prison, said in an interview with researchers:
“When I was inside no one wanted to listen, for so long no one wanted to listen, for so many years I was too scared to talk.”
“I mean, if [modern slavery survivors] ended up in prison, for one reason or another, it means that they weren’t supported, because I think that’s the quickest way - for us, being victims, it’s the quickest way to put us into prison rather than support us.”
“When I was inside no one wanted to listen, for so long no one wanted to listen, for so many years I was too scared to talk.”Survivor of modern slavery with experience of prison
Ghadah Alnasseri from the Hibiscus Initiatives said:
"Hibiscus Initiatives continues to identify survivors of trafficking who might have been wrongly criminalised for being forced to commit an offence, where despite disclosing indicators of trafficking they proceed to be convicted and sentenced.
“Based on our experience throughout the years, we have encountered many survivors who do not access the support they should receive. The majority of survivors we encounter are in a very fragile emotional state while in prison, not being able to access the specialist support they need and deserve. "
Patrick Burland from IOM, said:
“Currently, the likelihood for people to be identified as survivors of modern slavery in prison is hindered by the lack of awareness and ability to spot the signs among prison staff and the fact that they cannot directly refer them to the NRM."
“The research provides recommendations to improve the capacity of prison staff, as well as to recognise them as among the stakeholders that can make referrals within the existing support system.”
Although welcome that the HMPPS Modern Slavery Guidance for prisons in England and Wales was published in 2022, which appointed the Modern Slavery Special Points of Contact (SPOCS), the research makes numerous recommendations to further improve the identification and support of survivors in UK prisons, as required by binding international human rights obligations.
Jakub Sobik from the Modern Slavery PEC, which funded the study, said:
“There is clearly plenty to do to improve identification and support for people affected by modern slavery, including more training, coordination and sharing information, resourcing and collecting of data.”
“Prisons represent a missing piece in the UK’s response to modern slavery – this groundbreaking research is the first one to fill this gap, even though there’s clearly more to uncover.”
About the research:
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.