Discussions around the Illegal Migration Bill have referenced wanting to avoid abuse of the modern slavery protection system to explain the need to temporarily block access to people arriving in the UK irregularly. However, IOM analysis of publicly available government data about the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s official system to identify and support victims of modern slavery and trafficking, does not find evidence of misuse, but rather highlights a number of concerns for victims about the current system. This briefing examines 3 key facts about modern slavery in the UK.
#1 Publicly available data does not appear to show abuse of the UK modern slavery protection system and there are existing measures to prevent abuse.
Almost 90% of individuals referred to the NRM in 2022 who have received a decision were found to be a victim of modern slavery and trafficking by the Home Office (the decision-makers).
The 16,938 people referred as a potential victim of modern slavery in 2022 was a record high and a 33% increase on referrals in 2021. However, this was much smaller than the 52% increase seen in 2019. The rise in referrals is likely a result of training and awareness-raising to spot the signs of modern slavery.
Individuals cannot self-refer to the NRM, they can only be referred by trained professionals working for organisations permitted by the Home Office to make referrals (known as ‘First Responder Organisations’).
In 2022, nearly half of all individuals referred to the NRM were referred by entities within the Home Office, including Border Force, UK Visas and Immigration, and Immigration Enforcement.
Strong measures are already in place to guide who can access the system, such as disqualifications for grounds of public order, acting in bad faith, and appeal rights are limited.
#2 Despite a public focus on irregular migrants, a mere 7% of individuals arriving in small boats access the modern slavery protection system, while 25% of all individuals referred are UK nationals.
6,210 people who arrived by boat between 2018 and 2022 were referred as a potential victim of modern slavery to the NRM, just 7% of the total 83,236 people who arrived in small boats in that period. Individuals arriving by boat referred as a potential victim of modern slavery were just as likely to be officially recognised as a victim by the Home Office as anyone else referred, with a 85% positive decision rate regardless of how someone arrived.
UK nationals represented 25% of all referrals to the NRM. Referrals of UK nationals have risen more than 3,000% since 2014 and UK children made up nearly half of all potential child victims of modern slavery in 2022.
Despite references to Albanian nationals allegedly abusing the NRM, two third of Albanians referred in 2022, who received a decision from the Home Office, were found to be victims. Albanian nationals have been in the top 3 most referred nationalities in the NRM since records began in 2014, so this is not a new trend.
#3 The main challenges for the UK modern slavery protection system are the long waiting times to make decisions which disproportionately affect women, and the identification of hidden victims.
There are approximately 30,000 people waiting for a decision from the Home Office on whether they consider them to be a victim of modern slavery, including some first referred in 2014 and 2015, before the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. The average (median) waiting time for decisions made in 2022 was 543 days which is the longest recorded annual waiting time since records began. In 2022, the average (median) waiting time for women to receive a decision was 1,066 days against 448 days for men, meaning that women wait twice as long as men for a decision to be made on their case.
A decade ago, the Home Office estimated there were between 10,000 and 13,000 victims in the UK and in 2022, the Centre for Social Justice said there could be in excess of 100,000 victims in the UK. The challenge is identifying all those who remain in a situation of modern slavery, providing comprehensive support to those who are identified so they can recover from their experiences, and to prevent modern slavery. In 2022 there was a 43% increase in the number of potential victims (4580 people) who did not give their consent to be referred to the NRM. Human traffickers and exploiters may tell victims that if they escape, they will not get support but will instead be deported, making them fearful of seeking help.