Human trafficking and modern slavery – UK Government assessment
The UK Government has taken important steps to eradicate and enhance understanding of modern slavery and trafficking, such as taking steps to tackle slavery in supply chains, but concerns remain about the effectiveness of the legal framework and the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The number of NRM referrals has increased significantly in recent years, but the true scale of modern slavery remains unknown and prosecution rates are low. The pandemic has exacerbated vulnerabilities to exploitation, including for children.
- There is no definitive data source to accurately identify the number of victims of modern slavery in the UK, but estimates from police data indicate there could be at least 100,000 victims each year.
- The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) has received a growing number of referrals of potential victims of trafficking or modern slavery, although referrals remain low compared with the estimated number of victims. There were 10,613 referrals in 2020, a 179% increase since 2016. Of these, 74% were male; 47% were children; and 74% were exploited in the UK.
- There was an increase in the period 2016‒19 in the number of child potential victims of modern slavery and trafficking being referred to the NRM, partly due to a rise in the identification of ‘county lines’ exploitation cases.
- In February 2021, the European Court of Human Rights found that the UK had acted unlawfully by prosecuting two children who were potential victims of trafficking.
- Migrant domestic workers – who are mainly women – remain vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, trafficking and forced labour. Despite the 2016 changes to the immigration rules, it remains challenging for migrant domestic workers to leave abusive employers and seek support through the NRM.
- There are concerns that the pandemic exacerbated vulnerabilities to child exploitation and worsened factors leading to labour exploitation, with migrant domestic workers at particular risk of destitution.
- The number of live modern slavery police operations has increased from 188 in December 2016 to 1,810 in February 2020. However, the proportion of cases resulting in a charge has been declining and prosecution rates remain low: in the year ending March 2020, only 289 people suspected of perpetrating trafficking crimes were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision.
- Reforms to the NRM were due to be completed by March 2020, but remain ongoing. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s 2020 annual report noted that the NRM is not doing enough to protect victims, despite such reforms. Concerns include significant delays in decision-making, a lack of transparency and accountability in the system, and gaps in specialist support and safeguarding for child survivors.
- The UK Government’s 2020 statutory guidance on identifying and supporting victims of modern slavery has been welcomed by civil society, although there are concerns about the delays in issuing such guidance and the lack of a meaningful consultation during its development.
- The Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) has a number of weaknesses that hinder its effectiveness. The 2019 final report of the Independent Review of the MSA made various recommendations, including calls for the UK Government to commence provisions regarding Independent Child Trafficking Guardians, to fully roll out its revised model of support, and to amend the MSA to clarify that children cannot consent to their exploitation. The UK Government accepted a number of the recommendations, some subject to further consultation, but rejected the latter recommendation.
Read more about the UK Government’s actions on human trafficking and modern slavery.