UK authorities “miss many opportunities” to protect British nationals from being exploited in modern slavery, and when they do get identified as potential victims, they have faced “a cycle of closed doors”, new research has shown.
The number of British nationals referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the national framework for identifying and supporting potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking, has increased year on year, rising from 90 in 2013 to 3,952 in 2021. Last year, British nationals accounted for nearly a third of all potential victims (31%). The largest proportion of these referrals in 2021 was for criminal exploitation involving children, representing 55% of all referrals of British nationals, with the majority exploited in criminal activities such as ‘county lines’.
But new research found that despite having been in contact with people who were being exploited in modern slavery or at risk from it, authorities miss many opportunities to identify potential British victims and prevent their further exploitation. Authorities identified as most commonly missing the signs include professionals from social services, NHS, education, mental health services and the criminal justice system.
The research was commissioned by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) and carried out by St Mary’s University Twickenham in partnership with the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull and Justice & Care and Craig Barlow Consultancy and Training. It surveyed and interviewed over 50 professionals working with people affected by modern slavery, as well as interviewing seven survivors, to paint a complex picture of systemic barriers creating social and economic vulnerabilities in relation to modern slavery. The lack of awareness amongst services to intervene early and protect British nationals from exploitation was a key feature.
Dr Carole Murphy, St Mary’s University Twickenham, who led the study, said: "Our research shows that there’s a huge gap in knowledge about the potential for British nationals to be exploited in modern slavery. This lack of knowledge and understanding results in them not being offered the same support as other people. Despite being the largest group of people identified as potential victims of modern slavery and being referred into the NRM, they’re commonly failed by the authorities, facing what one respondent in this study referred to as ‘a cycle of closed doors’.
“What sets British citizens affected by modern slavery apart from other potential victims is that they have regularly come into contact with social services, schools and education institutions, mental and physical health professionals even before their exploitation starts. Despite this, agencies that are designed to support them, regularly miss opportunities to protect them from being exploited.”
"Our research shows that there’s a huge gap in knowledge about the potential for British nationals to be exploited in modern slavery. "Dr Carole Murphy, St Mary’s University Twickenham
The research points to contextual and societal factors that contribute to British nationals becoming vulnerable to being exploited. A lack of support to access safe housing, family support, mental health, and substance misuse increased vulnerability to exploitation.
These issues, coupled with misunderstandings about modern slavery and the fact that British nationals are commonly exploited in criminal activities, mean that professionals from statutory agencies who come into contact with them often find it difficult to spot the signs of exploitation, which results in them being treated them as criminals rather than victims.
The report quotes a respondent in the research who disclosed his exploitation to social services saying he was ‘in deep trouble’. They responded that ‘[I] tend[ed] to fantasise and that a boy my age cannot live that type of lifestyle’.
The research found that the police, prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals find it particularly difficult to differentiate between those who commit crimes of their own volition from those who are forced do so by their exploiters, often resulting in criminalisation.
Dr Murphy said: “These are complex criminal cases in which it’s difficult for police to differentiate between someone who has committed a crime of their own volition and someone who has been coerced. For example, after arresting someone for selling drugs they need to look beyond the surface and question whether that person was actually a victim of exploitation. This requires a different approach and a different perspective, that needs to be embedded in training on the complexity of these sorts of cases”.
"These are complex criminal cases in which it’s difficult for police to differentiate between someone who has committed a crime of their own volition and someone who has been coerced. "Dr Carole Murphy, St Mary’s University Twickenham
The research found that British citizens who get identified by authorities as potential victims of modern slavery often find it difficult to access specialised support, facing “a cycle of closed doors”. As British nationals have recourse to public funds and access to social support, support professionals were often confused about their entitlements. This resulted in referrals to local authorities rather than being signposted to specialised services through the NRM.
The report recommends implementing a public health approach to modern slavery to prioritise prevention and early identification of British nationals, including reviewing legislative protections for survivors. At regional and local levels, the report proposes implementing community awareness and resilience programmes and developing multi-agency modern slavery partnerships.
It advises providing training to frontline professionals likely to encounter potential victims of modern slavery, specifically addressing the experience of modern slavery for British nationals.
It also recommends integrating the approach to supporting people who experienced modern slavery, including improved communication between services provided through the NRM and local authorities, as well as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in cases of criminal exploitation.
Liz Williams, Policy Impact Manager at the Modern Slavery PEC, which commissioned the study, said: “All people who are exploited in modern slavery deserve specialised support to safely recover from their experience.
“We need to build a system and policies that can identify and respond to specific challenges and vulnerabilities faced by people who experience modern slavery. That includes designing support services that understand British nationals’ specific rights and circumstances informed by evidenced provided by this and other research.”
"We need to build a system and policies that can identify and respond to specific challenges and vulnerabilities faced by people who experience modern slavery. That includes designing support services that understand British nationals’ specific rights and circumstances informed by evidenced provided by this and other research."Liz Williams, Policy Impact Manager at the Modern Slavery PEC