IOM’s analysis of National Referral Mechanism data following the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act

When the UK government published its New Plan for Immigration, it stated that reforms to the UK’s modern slavery protection system were necessary to “identify victims as quickly as possible and enhance the support they receive, while distinguishing more effectively between genuine and vexatious accounts of modern slavery” and to enable the UK to “withhold protections afforded by the NRM where there is a link to serious criminality or a serious risk to UK national security and enabling the removal of serious criminals and people who are a threat to the public and UK national security.” 

Discussions around the reforms often referenced a need to prevent abuse of the system to explain the need to temporarily block access for people arriving in the UK irregularly. However, as IOM explained in its briefing “Illegal Migration Bill, three facts about Modern Slavery in the UK”, analysis of the government’s data did not find evidence of abuse, but rather highlighted a number of concerns for victims about the current system, namely long waiting times, disproportionately affecting women, and the identification of hidden victims.  

With the changes to the modern slavery support system resulting from the Nationality and Borders Act (NABA) now in place since 30th January 2023, IOM has analysed the 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, to examine the impact of this new legislation. 

#1 Since the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act, stark differences have emerged in the likelihood of people being recognised as a potential victim of modern slavery depending on their nationality. 

The changes that were made in the statutory guidance in January 2023 to making decisions for potential victims of modern slavery to implement NABA required victims to be able to provide “objective evidence” which meant a person’s own account of their experiences would not be enough on its own for them to receive a positive initial decision (reasonable grounds decision).  

IOM is concerned to see that these changes to how decisions are made for all potential victims of modern slavery have resulted in an unprecedented and dramatic fall in the percentage of foreign nationals being recognised as potential victims, while there has been hardly any impact on the numbers of UK nationals being recognised as potential survivors of modern slavery. It will be critical to continue analysing the data in the next quarters to better understand the impact of the Home Office withdrawing the requirement for “objective evidence” on the percentage of positive decisions for foreign nationals at the end of June 2023. 

Only 53% of Reasonable Grounds (RG) decisions (which are made by the Home Office and which entitle people to access the protections offer through the NRM) made in the first six months of 2023 were positive, compared to 90% in the same period in 2022. However, 86% of the decisions for UK nationals were positive compared to just 40% for foreign nationals.   

#2 Since the NABA changes to decision-making, there have been unprecedented differences in the outcomes of decisions for potential victims of modern slavery based on which organisation referred them. People are much less likely to be found to be a potential victim of modern slavery if they were referred by Home Office staff than if they were referred by police, charities or local authorities. 

Only 32% of reasonable grounds decisions in the first 6 months of 2023 for people who were referred to the NRM by Home Office staff were positive. In comparison, 82% of people referred by local authorities and 64% of people referred by the police received a positive decision. Between April and June 2023, only 4% of decisions were positive for cases of people who were referred by the Home Office’s Immigration Enforcement staff. 

#3 The changes to how decisions are made have also resulted in potential victims of modern slavery waiting longer to receive a reasonable ground decision. This means they are not able to access government-funded support through the NRM, increasing the risk of re-trafficking and making it harder to recover. 

The typical waiting time for a reasonable ground decision jumped from 6 days to 21 days.  A positive RG decision is required for government-funded support to be provided, meaning that people are waiting 3 times longer than previously to access this support.  

At the same time, the number of final decisions between April and June 2023 on people’s status as a victim of modern slavery (conclusive grounds) fell compared to the previous 3 months for the first time in more than two years. 

With more than 27,000 people waiting for a final decision from the Home Office (conclusive grounds decision) 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 challenge remains making more decisions in a quicker time frame so that people can continue their recovery. Longer waiting times for initial decisions delays support and only exacerbates the challenges in making conclusive grounds decisions in good time.  

#4 The recent changes mean that the criminal acts which victims of modern slavery may have been forced to commit may now be excluding them from accessing the protections offered to victims of modern slavery. 

Most people referred to the NRM are reported as having been exploited for the purposes of committing crimes (working in cannabis factory, transporting and selling drugs in so called “county-lines” and petty crimes). The recognition that victims can be exploited for such purposes is addressed in the 2015 Modern Slavery Act which implements the non-punishment principle (required in international instruments on trafficking) by providing a legal defence to prevent victims from being found guilty of offences which they were compelled to commit. NABA now enables the Home Office to prevent people from accessing protections if they are a ‘threat to public order.’ In practice this can mean those who have been convicted of an offence in the UK and sentenced to at least 12 months in prison. 

IOM is concerned that potential victims of criminal exploitation are being prevented from accessing protection due to these changes, going against the spirit of the non-punishment principle. 

Nearly three quarters of people who have been disqualified on the grounds they are a ‘threat to public order’ were referred as potential victim of criminal exploitation. 

Click here to access the full NRM Mid-Year Report.


For more information please contact Abir Soleiman,