Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Life after trafficking in the UK: uncertainty, destitution and neglect

The UK claims to lead the fight against trafficking, but its policies on immigration, right to work, and access to benefits make it hard for survivors to recover.

Kate Roberts
24 April 2019, 8.00am
An immigration raid in London.
Lewis Whyld/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The Modern Slavery Act (2015) is often cited as demonstration of the UK’s commitment to combatting exploitation and human trafficking. Yet the act offers little help to people who have been trafficked to, or in, the UK to recover and build a new life.

The UK government does not plan or enable needs-based support for trafficked people to rebuild their lives. It does not collect data on outcomes for trafficked people, including those who have been through its identification and support system (the national referral mechanism, or NRM). Indeed, a December 2017 report of the National Audit Office on public spending for reducing modern slavery states that “The Home Office has no assurance that victims are not trafficked again, potentially undermining the support given through the NRM”.

In 2018, 6,993 potential victims were referred to the NRM, a 36% increase on 2017. During the same period 1,151 people were positively identified by the UK authorities as having been a victim. A negative trafficking decision does not mean someone was not trafficked, but simply that there was not enough evidence to make a positive decision at that time. No pathways are put in place to protect those with a negative decision from further exploitation; nor is there data as to the current situation of those who have previously received a positive decision. Any information on outcomes is piecemeal and largely anecdotal. In 2016, when the Human Trafficking Foundation attempted to follow up with 73 survivors who had lost support, 18 were not contactable and completely unaccounted for. City Hearts, a safe house for survivors, found that 76% of a sample of clients who exited its services between 2011 and 2015 could not be contacted.

If a person’s trafficking decision is negative, support ends within nine days. If it is positive, support ends after 45 days.

For the majority, there is no ongoing specialist support after the official decision as to whether they have been trafficked or not. At present, if a person’s trafficking decision is negative, support ends within nine days. If it is positive, support ends after 45 days or six weeks. This is an increase, introduced at the start of February 2019, from nine days and two weeks. While a welcome recognition by UK government of the need for post identification support this does not go far enough. These new time frames for ending support are still unrealistically short. It makes no sense that recognised victims of such a serious and debilitating crime lose their support with no guarantee of even short-term basic needs such as secure immigration status and accommodation. This point has been described as a ‘cliff edge’ and does much to undermine the trust of trafficked people, as well as to expose them to destitution or further exploitation.

Included in the NRM reforms announced in October 2017 was a notice that “subsistence rates provided to victims of modern slavery” would be aligned to those received by asylum seekers. What this means in practice is a reduction in subsistence rates which people in the NRM ‘reflection and recovery’ period have to live on from £65 a week to £37.75 a week. This would leave people in the period leading up to their NRM decision subsisting on the destitution rate of just over £5 a day.

The practical and emotional difficulties and insecurity this poses to people in the NRM undermine any potential benefit of longer support period. It is difficult to understand how anyone surviving on so little money will be able to benefit from legal, health and education support during this period when their focus will be meeting their basic needs for food and clothing with so little money. A High Court judgement, handed down on 8 November 2018, found that a reduction of the rates paid to people in the NRM who had applied for asylum to £37.75 a week, which had been introduced on 1 March 2018, was unlawful. The UK government was ordered to repay the difference to those affected yet the proposed alignment remains government policy. This was confirmed by the Home Office Modern Slavery Unit during an HTF Forum meeting in January 2019.

In March 2017, a coalition of NGOs and lawyers published a policy document with recommendations to “highlight the minimum standards needed for a sustainable support system towards recovery for adult survivors of slavery”. The document calls for a positive decision from the NRM to carry status which is of practical assistance to the recipient in rebuilding their life. It recommends that “the decision should equate to a meaningful rehabilitation period provided through the issuing of a residence permit for a minimum time period of at least 12 months”. It also recommends that all possible victims be offered legal advice and representation as early into their identification as possible, and that each individual with a positive decision should be assigned a case worker who coordinates their care plan and access to services and is prepared to advocate on their behalf.

On 30 April 2017, the UK Parliament’s Work and Pensions Select Committee published its report on victims of modern slavery. It found that victims were becoming destitute or even re-trafficked after a positive identification, due to a lack of understanding and recognition of their situation. The committee found that the sudden removal of support helped to explain the low convictions of traffickers, since victims were not supported to disclose their abuse and to testify. Giving evidence to the inquiry, Baroness Butler-Sloss described the NRM process as producing no result except “a piece of paper” for victims.

The committee found the government’s response to its recommendations disappointing: “The recommendation of granting one year’s leave to remain to confirmed victims of slavery was rejected on the questionable grounds that it could increase immigration by providing incentives to pose as a victim”. Thus, unverified immigration concerns appear to trump the UK government’s professed commitment to upholding victims’ rights.

Many survivors are involved in complex legal cases, which can include a compensation claim, a police investigation or criminal claim against their trafficker, and immigration applications. These continue well beyond identification through the NRM. People identified as trafficked are also likely to be dealing with medical and mental health issues and beginning to come to terms with what has happened to them. It can take years for survivors to disclose some of the details of their abuse. It is unrealistic to expect any kind of meaningful reflection and recovery, let alone active pursuit of justice, while an individual still has basic needs such as food and accommodation unmet and does not have even short-term security in the UK.

In April 2017 the Co-op launched its Bright Future programme, which offers survivors a paid work placement with a non-competitive interview at the end of it. In late 2017 the Co-op reported that one of the Bright Future participants had recently been named employee of the month for their store – a real example of restoring dignity and contributing to society through work. This is a national model offering a pathway for building a life after trafficking. However, it is only open to survivors who have the right to work in the UK.

Ian McColl of Dulwich has tabled a private members bill, currently waiting for second reading in the House of Commons, where it has been sponsored by Iain Duncan Smith MP. The bill calls for victim support beyond the NRM’s trafficking finding – including a residence permit of at least one year and casework support during this time. These are minimum asks which would give trafficked people a chance of accessing justice in the form of a compensation claim, health services or education opportunities and, if they are ready, employment. However, even one year’s leave with support to begin to build a life after trafficking is something the UK government has not yet supported for all confirmed victims. Until they do, trafficked people are left without these most basic of provisions, and rebuilding life after trafficking remains an impossible aspiration for the majority of victims in the UK. Instead, the challenge remains continued survival and avoiding the revolving door back into exploitation.

A slightly different version of this piece was originally published in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 10.


Since this article was written there has been a legal challenge which could have significant implications for the support provided to people identified through the NRM as victims of trafficking and modern slavery in the UK.

On 17 April 2019, a High Court judge made an interim order preventing support providers from exiting victims with a positive Conclusive Grounds decision from support purely on the basis of a certain amount of time having passed since their identification as trafficked. This temporary order has been made on the basis of a challenge taken by two victims of trafficking who are represented by Duncan Lewis solicitors. They challenged the ending of support based on time having passed, rather than their individual needs. The judge also extended the interim relief (to not be exited from support purely on the basis of time) to all people in the UK recognised as being a victim with a positive Conclusive Grounds decision made through the NRM.

A Judicial Review hearing on this matter will take place in May or June 2019.

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