News & Events


By Patrick Burland
Recent shocking video footage of a slave auction in Libya brought renewed attention to the global scourge of human trafficking and modern slavery. Given its hidden nature, estimates vary enormously but there are reported to be millions of people affected. Since 1994, IOM has supported over 70,000 trafficked persons around the world. Despite considerable sympathy and concern from the public for the victims, little attention is given to how states identify and support them after they have escaped exploitation and abuse.

In the United Kingdom, potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery are identified and supported through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). In October 2017, the UK government announced changes to the National Referral Mechanism to ‘radically improve the identification and support for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.’ Welcome changes are being made in three critical areas: identifying victims, support for child victims, and the length of time that support is provided. Reforms in these areas are positive steps forward, but characterising them as ‘radical’ should be questioned as much more can be done.

Figures released this week show that 5,145 people were referred to the NRM as potential victims of trafficking in 2017, this was a 35% increase on the 2016 total. This enormous increase makes improving the identification and support for those referred to the NRM even more important and urgent.

The first significant change is for a new expert body to be created in the Home Office to decide whether people are victims of human trafficking or slavery. This means that UK Visas and Immigration, a division of the Home Office with responsibility for deciding who has the right to stay in the country, will no longer make decisions on trafficking cases. The announcement explains that this will ‘separate’ decisions ‘from the immigration system.’ This comes in response to longstanding concerns about a correlation between a person’s immigration status and the likelihood of them being conclusively identified as a victim of trafficking or slavery. For example, available data on decisions for people referred into the NRM in 2015 show 90% of people from Poland and 85% from Romania, nationalities with a right to residency in the UK, were formally identified as victims of trafficking or slavery compared with 37% of people from Nigeria and 30% of people from Albania, nationalities who do not. This indicates a potential bias against recognising people as victims of trafficking if they are from countries where their right to residency in the UK is not pre-established.

The announcement shows that the government acknowledges that decisions on trafficking and slavery should be separated from the immigration system. However, while UK Visas and Immigration will no longer make the decisions, the potential for conflicts of interest remains as they will continue to be made by staff within the Home Office; the government department responsible for all aspects of immigration control. The most effective way for the UK government to build an effective firewall between victim identification and immigration concerns is to move this process outside of the Home Office.

Child victims are a concern as children comprised more than 40% of the referrals into the NRM in 2017. The government has said the changes will make the process as ‘child friendly as possible.’ One such change is the introduction of Independent Child Trafficking Advocates who will be tasked to act in the best interests of the child across the country. A government evaluation of a one-year trial of the service found that the advocates helped build trust with children and improved decision making on their cases.

Changes to improve trust and decision making are welcome, but what is still missing is the provision of indispensable specialist support for trafficked children. Trafficked adults can access specialist support, but children – who are the most vulnerable and have the greatest support needs – are left out. IOM recently supported a letter written by the child trafficking charity ECPAT to the Home Secretary which called for specialist support to be provided to trafficked children in the UK. The idea that child victims should be able to access specialist support should not be seen as a radical proposal; it’s just good practice.

The third important reform is that government has announced plans to increase support for victims to ‘at least 90 days.’ Increasing the length of time that support is provided is clearly an improvement. However, the increase to 90 days should be seen in the context of the average of 134 days it took for a person to receive a final conclusive decision on whether they were a victim of trafficking or slavery in 2016.

If trained professionals cannot decide whether a person has been a victim of trafficking or slavery within 45 or 90 days, how can this be enough time for people to recover? A truly radical change to increase support is offered by the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill which would provide victims of trafficking or slavery access to support for 12 months. IOM supports this bill.

Changes to how the UK government responds to identifying and supporting victims of trafficking and slavery have been long-awaited. A review of the NRM in November 2014 by the Home Office acknowledged, ‘Many level criticism at the current system and we have found that it does need to change.’ Three years later, the government has announced a series of modest changes to the system. The proposed reforms should go further in improving support and identification for victims if the UK government wants to live up to its claims of leading the world in responding to modern slavery and human trafficking and of making radical reform to the NRM.

One-hundred years ago, women were first granted the right to vote in the UK. That same year, women also won the right to be elected into the UK Parliament. It was a year that epitomized a new chapter for women’s integration in a story that remains unfinished.

Today, on International Women’s Day, we pay homage to all those who work tirelessly to combat injustices they face based solely on their gender. The UN Migration Agency (IOM), stands with each person who demonstrates the courage and resilience to pave the way for women’s rights and empowerment.

As they did a century ago, women are once again joining voices to foster change today and for future generations. However, one segment of society is often underrepresented and unheard in this symphony for change: migrant women.

Migrant women face the same disparities all women confront, but may also experience additional challenges. Our gender influences our motivations, approaches and how we balance life through the prescribed boxes of cultural expectations. This factors into how each of us contributes to our family, work, and community. Women also continue to face gender-based violence, harassment and exploitation, especially along migratory routes, signifying deeply-rooted power imbalances that we must all condemn.

Migrant women often must also overcome language barriers, cultural expectations, stereotypes, and knowing how to access resources. The ability to do this can significantly affect a person’s contribution to and integration within a community.

Over the last decade, numerous studies have shown the economic impact of integrated migrants on the British economy. While methodologies and conclusions varied among the studies, one common theme that has emerged is the net benefit that migrants have had on the British economy. Over half (52 percent) of the UK’s 8.8 million migrants are women according to IOM’s Migration Data Portal. The collective force of their potential contribution to our society can only be realised through more active inclusion.

Despite the evidence and potential, migrant women continue to face unique barriers to their full integration into British society. Anecdotal evidence suggests female migrants, including refugees and survivors of human trafficking, are less likely than their male counterparts to actively engage with employers, government and civil society. Causes may vary, but the extent of integration depends upon societal roles, autonomy in decision-making, social biases from migrant and local populations, and knowledge about information access points. Consequently, female migrants may experience social isolation and reduced opportunities for language learning, education and employment which simply reinforces the marginalization.

Just as we have seen the potential of British women realized over the last century, the potential of migrant women in the UK is also great. Many migrant women have made significant social impacts, like Melody, a social entrepreneur from Tehran who was named “New European Woman Influencer” by the European Parliament in June 2015.

“School years were the hardest years of my life in England. I was lonely and felt misunderstood. I channelled my energy into the UK community and found a way to make a difference in the country and give back,” she said.

Migrant women like Melody play an essential role in community and family life. For example, women are more likely take on more care-related responsibilities in the family, whether their own or for work. A recent study found that migrants working in the adult social care sector contribute 4.4 billion pounds to the English economy annually. The vast majority of these social care workers are migrant women.

So why do some migrant women flourish, while others are marginalized? Some argue that it is the level of integration support provided, either through local authorities or the community. Although some localised integration strategies do exist in the UK, there is currently no national strategy. This reduces the experiences and potential contribution of migrants or refugees to a geographic lottery to access information about education, housing, healthcare or basic services. A national strategy can serve as a guiding principle for local authorities, promote greater engagement and act as a best practices roadmap.

Integration is not a one-way street. It takes active acknowledgement from both local and migrant communities of the similarities, differences, challenges and benefits diversity can bring. National self-awareness can help formulate sound policies that address the distinct advantages and disadvantages gender plays during the integration process.

Integration works best when there is a national space for reciprocal conversations about backgrounds, expectations and goals. By doing this, we can counter migrant marginalization, especially for women, and create equal opportunities to contribute to the economy and the community. Through our work, IOM supports those strategies that bring a more balanced world for all of us: women, men, children, migrants and non-migrants. Now is the time to act.

Opinion piece by Abby Dwommoh, first published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Abby Dwommoh is the Public Information Officer and Spokesperson for IOM – the UN Migration Agency in London. She joined IOM in 2015 in the Turkey office, at the height of the Mediterranean Crisis. Prior to joining IOM, Abby served in the U.S. Foreign Service in Morocco, Nigeria and France.