Updated analysis of the National Referral Mechanism data

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) regularly analyses data from the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s official system to identify and support victims of modern slavery and trafficking. One year since the Nationality and Borders Act (NABA) changed the NRM, the data points to the following new trends:

#1 Potential victims of modern slavery wait ten times longer than the 5-day target to receive an initial decision. This leaves individuals without specialist support for longer, meaning they are more vulnerable to re-trafficking.

Despite the Home Office introducing new decision making in July 2023 following the High Court decision in June, the median waiting time to receive a reasonable grounds decision made between July and September 2023 was 47 days. That was nearly ten times longer than the 5-working day target. A positive decision is required to access specialist support and assistance under the NRM. The longer people are unable to access support, the higher the risk of being re-trafficked or facing further abuse.

Median waiting time for reasonable grounds decisions made per quarter

#2 Despite the withdrawal of the requirement of “objective evidence”, there are still large numbers of negative reasonable grounds decisions between July and September 2023 for foreign nationals compared to UK nationals.

In 2023, only 4 out of 10 foreign nationals received a positive reasonable grounds decision, compared to 8 out of 10 UK nationals. Between 2019 and 2022 there were no noticeable differences in comparing positive decisions for UK and all foreign nationals. 9 out of 10 decisions were typically positive for both. The data shows that changes to decision making have had profoundly different impacts on people depending on their nationality.

Percentage of positive reasonable grounds decisions per quarter for UK nationals and foreign nationals

#3 Significant variations remain between the numbers of positive decisions based on which type of organisation referred a potential victim of modern slavery.

Only 35% of reasonable grounds decisions in the first 9 months of 2023 for people who were referred to the NRM by the Home Office were positive. In comparison, 81% of people referred by local authorities and 64% referred by the police received a positive decision.

Percentage of positive reasonable grounds decisions by first responder type 2014-Q3 2023

#4 Individuals who were referred as children as potential victims of modern slavery now struggle to access support and protection.

4 out of 10 cases referred to the NRM in the first 9 months of 2023 were people reported as potentially being a victim of modern slavery as a child. The large differences by nationality and referring organisation can also be seen for children. Whereas 92% of UK child cases received a positive reasonable grounds decision in the first 9 months this was only 55% for foreign children. Only 50% of reasonable grounds decisions made between July and September 2023 for child cases were positive when they had been referred by Home Office staff compared to 80% when they had been referred by a local authority or police. There are also considerable differences based on which unit within the Home Office made the decision. There are two units: the Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority (IECA) and the Single Competent Authority (SCA). Statutory guidance from the UK government says the SCA is responsible for all child cases. However, the data shows that IECA has made nearly 700 reasonable grounds decisions for child cases since it was established in November 2021. Before the changes to decision making on 30th January 2023, at least 90% of decisions for child cases made by the IECA per quarter were positive. Whilst the SCA positive decision rate remained relatively stable at 80% between April and June, the IECA positive rate fell to just 12% . In the first 9 months of 2023, only 40% of decisions for child cases made by the IECA were positive compared to 77% by the SCA.

Percentage of positive reasonable grounds decisions for child cases per quarter by IECA and Single Competent Authority

#5 Women referred to the NRM as potential victims of modern slavery continue to wait twice as long as anyone else for a final (Conclusive Grounds) decision.

For decisions for women in the first 9 months of 2023, the median waiting time was 1038 days, twice as long as the 524 days for men. The increased waiting times for women are particularly problematic given that many have children who they are parenting alone while waiting in limbo, with a negative impact not only on their life, but also on the life of their children.

Median waiting times for conclusive grounds decisions

#6 People who were forced to commit criminal offences as part of their exploitation have been cut out from accessing protection, increasing the risk for them of being re-trafficked.

In 2023, the NABA changes enabled the Home Office to disqualify people who had previously received a positive reasonable grounds decision from being able to access protection through the NRM, if they had been given a 12-month prison sentence. 70% of people who were disqualified had received a positive reasonable grounds decision as a potential victim of criminal exploitation, meaning that they were potentially forced to commit the crimes as part of their exploitation. This policy was very recently withdrawn following a legal challenge which argued that the Home Office did not consider the risks of re-trafficking for those that were disqualified. However, by then 338 people had already been disqualified, including 40 children. The possible consequences of the policy are that those who were wrongly punished and sent to prison after being forced to commit criminal acts by their traffickers were denied protection through the NRM and were instead left vulnerable to re-trafficking.

Recorded potential exploitation type of cases disqualified on public order grounds


  • IOM advocates for a shorter waiting time in the NRM, particularly for women. This could be achieved by strengthening the system capacity to process the backlog as well as the increasing number of referrals, in line with efforts by the UK government and other referral partners aimed at improving the capacity to efficiently recognize cases of modern slavery. 
  • Post NRM-support also need to be strengthened, so that survivors  who have been officially recognised as victims of trafficking can receive appropriate care, including support to access the labour market, the first step towards an independent life.
  • IOM stands ready to support efforts to strengthen longer-term assistance provided to survivors, including through our skills training and integration support. We appreciate the UK’s leadership in tackling modern slavery nationally and globally, and we encourage it to continue to lead on best practices to support survivors.

    Listen to IOM UK's protection specialist Patrick Burland presenting the latest analysis of the data from the National Referral Mechanism. 

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) has a two-stage decision-making process for identifying potential victims of modern slavery (a term that includes any form of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour). The first stage is the Reasonable Grounds (RG) decision, which should be made within 5 working days of a potential victim being referred to the NRM. The RG decision is a "decision taken by the competent authorities as to whether the decision maker agrees there are reasonable grounds to believe, based on all available general and specific evidence but falling short of conclusive proof, that a person is a victim of modern slavery." A positive RG entitles a person to a reflection period of at least 30 days to receive specialist support and assistance. The second stage Conclusive Grounds (CG) decision should be made no sooner than 30 days after the RG decision and is made on the 'balance of probabilities' threshold. Both the RG and CG determinations are made by the Single Competent Authority (SCA) and Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority (IECA) which both sit within the Home Office. 

IOM's NRM Briefings