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Smoke but no fire: how not to read UK government trafficking statistics

The year-end reports from the UK’s national referral mechanism fail to present a comprehensive understanding of trafficking in the UK.

Holly Gramazio/Flickr. CC (by-nc)

On 29 March 2017 the UK’s National Crime Agency published its end of year report of statistical data on the people submitted to the national referral mechanism (NRM) in the United Kingdom in 2016. The NRM is responsible for the formal identification of trafficked persons and for referring those identified as potentially having been trafficked into government funded support. The NRM is also the mechanism through which data on human trafficking in the UK is collected.

The NRM end of year summaries provide a plethora of data that is unsuited to informing the public about the scale and nature of human trafficking in the UK or the responses to those identified as having been trafficked. For example, the type of claimed exploitation recorded in the referrals is reduced to only five possible categories in the summary report – a simplification that eliminates the complexities of what is placed under the umbrella term of ‘trafficking’ today. Furthermore the data is used in ways that create a misleading or inaccurate understanding of the scale of what is classified as human trafficking in the UK.

The annual NRM data publication is routinely followed by media articles reporting a rise in ‘potential victims of human trafficking’, a framing which implies to many readers that the ‘problem’ is increasing. The Evening Standard, for example, reported regarding the 2016 NRM data that, “nationally, the number of suspected victims of slavery and human trafficking has more than doubled in three years”. This message was repeated across national news media. Similarly, when the 2015 data was published, The Guardian newspaper reported the figures “reveal a steady rise of potential slavery victims over the last five years, with the single largest annual increase between 2014 and 2015 when nearly 1,000 extra cases were recorded”.

Fewer people were conclusively identified in 2016 as having been trafficked than in 2015.

The subtext of these statements is misleading, however, as while the number of people referred into the NRM continues to grow, the significantly smaller number of people identified as trafficked by the NRM has not kept pace. This proclaimed increase of nearly “1,000 extra cases” between 2014 and 2015 in The Guardian article was – it must be emphasised – the number of people being referred into the NRM rather than those conclusively identified as trafficked.

This framing problem is not limited to initial reports on the summary data: the media, politicians and some charities and non-governmental organisations involved in anti-trafficking work all too often present all referrals into the NRM as people who have been trafficked. For example, when speaking about the 2016 NRM data Javed Khan, the CEO of the UK children’s charity Barnardo’s, told a reporter, “we welcome the fact that more victims of human trafficking are being identified. However, we believe this figure is just the tip of the iceberg”.

Such a statement is inaccurate. What the 2016 NRM data summary shows is that fewer people were conclusively identified in 2016 as having been trafficked than in 2015. The number of people who were referred into the NRM in 2016 who subsequently received positive ‘conclusive grounds’ (CG) decisions by the time the summary report went to print was 635. According to the previous year’s report 674 referrals received a positive CG decision over the course of 2015, or 39 more than the year after.

How the NRM actually works

Apart from the framing problem described above, a significant lack of understanding about the function of the NRM is often apparent within media reporting on the data. The Independent, for example, highlighted the number of positive CG decisions in 2016 and explained that will “enable victims to access support”.

This statement is inaccurate, as two separate decisions are made on people referred into the NRM. A positive CG decision does not ensure that a person should have access to support or an automatic right to further residency in the UK, it simply provides an acknowledgement that the person has been trafficked. The other, called the ‘reasonable grounds’ decision (RG), takes place prior to the CG decision and is what determines access to 45 days of government-funded support. The 2016 NRM summary report adds to the confusion, as it lumps together people who received a “negative reasonable grounds or conclusive decision” (emphasis added) in 2013, 2014 and 2015 in the same category.

It’s important to understand this distinction, because a person who is granted a negative reasonable grounds decision will be excluded from accessing government funded support provided for potential trafficked persons. A person who receives a negative conclusive grounds decision after having been granted a positive conclusive grounds decision will have been able to access government funded support. But because the 2016 NRM summary does not contain data on the number of positive RG decisions granted, it is impossible to identify how many people were ineligible for support.

What happens after a decision is made also goes largely underreported. In total only 384 of the 2563 people who received a positive CG in 2014, 2015 and 2016 were granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK. This statistical evidence is not found in the NRM data but it highlights the limited value of a positive CG and the reality of the UK’s short term and limited response to its support for trafficked persons.

The focus on presenting certain data distracts from important critical debate about the merits of the NRM and its functioning.

A positive CG does not provide automatic discretionary leave to remain to allow the person to stay in the UK when this is necessary for their recovery or to enable them to participate in criminal investigations and proceedings against those who trafficked them or pursue compensation. The Home Office is only required to consider whether a person with a positive CG should be granted discretionary leave.

The 2016 summary furthermore indicates that the length of time required to reach a CG is frequently well beyond target. A Home Office review published in November 2014 confirmed this, stating “stakeholders agree current timescales for the conclusive grounds decision are a problem. UK Visas and Immigration is working to bring conclusive grounds decisions within a service standard of 98% of straight forward decisions within six months”.

Yet, two years on the data shows that 1,173 people referred into the NRM before 2016 were still waiting for a CG. This includes 16 people who were referred into the NRM in 2013, 312 from 2014 and 845 from 2015. The data also shows that 2,053 people referred into NRM in 2016 were awaiting a decision by the time of publication.

In short, trafficked persons who are only entitled to access government funded support for 45 days are being made to wait years for a CG. With the exception of Anti-Slavery International, who produced an infographic critically examining the 2016 NRM data, these significant delays have not been acknowledged or addressed in public commentary on the data.

Data as a distraction

The focus on presenting an annually increasing number of referrals into the NRM or the presentation of the numbers from each particular country for each type of exploitation distracts from important critical debate about the merits of the NRM and its functioning. This includes critical examination of the value of the NRM for people who have suffered exploitation and abuse in the UK yet do not fit the NRM’s criteria of a trafficked person. The annual numbers game also distracts from considering the appropriateness of excluding people from government-funded support until they have a positive RG, or the risks for undocumented migrants who are referred into the NRM.

Furthermore, the NRM end of year summaries present all referrals into the NRM as equals, however previous research by Anti-Slavery International highlights that referrals are not all equal. There are significant distinctions between the rates of CG decisions for different nationalities, particularly those with the right to residency to in the UK and those without.

We can see this because, while the 2016 summary contains no data on positive and negative decisions by nationality, the last four pages (Annex G) of the 52-page NCA publication of data for NRM referrals for January to March 2016 contains the decisions for 2015 NRM referrals by nationality. By 24 May 2016, where a CG decision had been made it was only positive in 50% of cases for Vietnamese nationals, 37% of cases for Nigerian nationals and 30% of cases for Albanian nationals. Referrals into the NRM of those three nationalities represented 41% of the 2015 NRM referrals. Where a CG decision had been made for people from the United Kingdom 90% received a positive decision, the decision was positive in 90.5% of decisions for Polish nationals, 78% for Slovakian nationals and 85% for Romanian nationals.

These are discrepancies that need critical examination, yet are never captured in the summary data. The annual publication of the NRM end of year summary data is simply about presenting human trafficking in the UK on the largest scale possible. What it needs to do instead is open the discussion on why the NRM is failing at its three stated purposes: identifying trafficked persons, referring people to support, and collecting data.


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