Shine A Light

Just how badly does the UK protect victims of trafficking?

The government claims its Modern Slavery Bill, that passed into law today, is proof that it cares about victims. So why are anti-trafficking processes letting victims down?

Jenny McCall
26 March 2015

Anti Slavery Day, October 2012, London (Flickr)

One day last September a 16 year old girl arrived at Heathrow airport accompanied by a British woman. The girl was travelling on a United States passport but she’d left there when she was two and was now living in an African country. 

Suspicious of the relationship between the pair, Border staff detained the child and let the woman continue on her travels. 

Whenever Border staff suspect that a child may be a victim of trafficking, they are supposed to inform the police and Children’s Services straight away.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, officials sent instructions for the girl to be flown to the US, even though she’d left there 14 years ago and didn’t speak English. The US Department for Homeland security was informed that the child would be returning. 

The girl was escorted to a holding room to wait for her flight and then taken out again for boarding. Then there was a ticketing glitch, so she was returned to the holding room.

It took officials 16 hours after the girl was first detained to inform the National Referral Mechanism, the system that exists to identify and protect potential victims of trafficking. 

Still, the order to send her to the US remained in place until, at last, officials acknowledged the girl’s request not to be sent there. It was another 34 hours before she was picked up by a social worker. 

Later, the Home Office found reasonable grounds to believe the girl was a victim of trafficking and she was temporarily admitted to the UK. 

This case came to light only because prison inspectors happened to make a surprise inspection of Heathrow Airport’s holding facilities on 30th September 2014. The details emerged two weeks ago in a report published here.  

The Prisons Inspectorate said: “The attempted removal to the US, the delay in placing the child in social services care and delay in referring her to the national referral mechanism indicated a lack of focus on promoting the child’s best interests and welfare.”

You can say that again. The UK’s systems for protecting victims of trafficking  — adults as well as children — aren’t up to the task. So how is the system supposed to work?

Mind the gap

The National Referral Mechanism was introduced in 2009 to identify and support trafficking victims. Government and agencies such as the police, social workers or charities like the Salvation Army, who may come into contact with a victim of trafficking are known as “first responders”. They refer individuals to one of two decision makers, known as Competent Authorities, which currently are the UK Visa and Immigration service (UKVI) and the UK Human Trafficking centre (UKHTC).  

Once the victim is identified and referred, the Competent Authority has up to 45 days to determine whether the person was trafficked or not. During this time the person is provided with accommodation.

When a decision has been made, an adult has 48 hours to leave the accommodation provided for them if it’s found that they have not been trafficked and 14 days to leave if it is found they have been trafficked. In either case adults get no further assistance and they may start a claim for asylum.

Children are accommodated by Local Authority Children’s Services. Many disappear, according to a shocking report by the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, published in 2012 (PDF here). The group noted:

“Trafficked children from abroad are particularly being let down and their needs ignored because the authorities view child trafficking as an immigration control issue. Hundreds of them disappear from care every year, many within 48 hours and often before being registered with children’s services. The majority of these children are never found again.” 

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that the majority of re-trafficking cases involves minors under the age of 25. 

The Anti Trafficking Monitoring Group  brings together human rights organisations including the Helen Bamber Foundation and ECPAT UK whose work involves combating human trafficking. They reviewed the National Referral Mechanism’s first five years’ work and exposed multiple flaws in their report last year. (You can access the PDF here).  

They found evidence of prejudice towards applicants from outside the European Union and towards child victims of trafficking, and identified a culture of disbelief against non-EU victims.


The Home Office may ignore or dismiss evidence of trafficking. (Womens eNews 2009, Flickr)

The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group’s report includes quotes from asylum interviews that provide examples of trafficking scenarios which were not acted upon by the UKVI staff at the Home Office. Here’s one:

“He told me I had to work on the streets. I worked ... he threatened me [with] what would happen to me if I ever left. I told [him] that I didn’t want to do this. That it was against my will.”

Here’s another:

“I have been working as a sex worker since I arrived in the UK four years ago. I did not pay any rent to the lady so she said I will have to sleep with these men.”

A Home Office staff member told one child victim of trafficking who was from outside the EU:

“Your account of escaping when your employer left the doors unlocked but actually open is considered inconsistent with your account of their previous behaviour where they kept the doors locked, wholly restricted your freedom and controlled your actions.”

Another victim, known as YP, was 16 years old when she was trafficked into the UK. She had been told that she would be able to go to school. Instead she was beaten and forced to work for her traffickers.

She escaped. Social services referred her case to the National Referral Mechanism. The decision was negative. But the judge in her asylum case decided that she had in fact been a victim of trafficking. She was later awarded £54,000 in damages.

The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group found that out of 299 referrals made in 2012 to the UK human trafficking centre, 80 per cent of their decisions said that the person had in fact been a victim of trafficking. For the UKVI it was less than 20 per cent.

According to National Crime Agency figures the National Referral Mechanism received 1746 applications from potential victims of trafficking, from EU and non-EU countries in 2013. Of all the applicants, 559 received a positive response, and 400 of them were EU victims.

I asked the Home Office to explain the apparent bias against non-EU victims. A spokesperson said: “non-EU victims of trafficking tend to be found in more exploitative conditions compared to EU.”

There is a more likely reason. A ‘positive’ decision on the trafficking claim may lead to leave to remain. Since the Home Office is also the gatekeeper of immigration decisions, there is a clear conflict. In EU cases there is no immigration decision to make.

“How can you have an organisation making decisions on a victim of trafficking when they have a performance indicator that marks them on how many people they get to leave the country?” asked Huw Watkins, a former Detective Inspector, Gwent Police, in a Centre for Social Justice, report in 2013.  (The Helen Bamber Foundation’s David Rhys Jones reviewed that report here on OurKingdom.) 

Fail again, fail better

In April last year Home Secretary Theresa May ordered the Home Office to review the National Referral Mechanism.

They published a report in November, proposing to put the Home Office in charge of the entire National Referral Mechanism, and take the UKVI out of the process, replacing them with a panel of decision makers. They also proposed to run an awareness programme to public and professionals to enhance recognition of human trafficking and to improve data collection plus provide support based on the assessment of the individual victims’ needs.

Advocates for people who have been trafficked aren’t impressed.

Mike Emberson, of the Medaille Trust, which provides shelter for victims of trafficking, reckons the Home Office is just giving more “jobs for the boys”.

He told me: “Replacing UKVI and UKHTC with this multi-agency panel is not going to work. A victim normally appears unannounced, requiring a decision to be made as soon as possible. Assembling a panel, issuing paperwork etc. is going to turn this into a hugely bureaucratic process that will take months to resolve, as with all civil service endeavours we will have a lot of process with little outcome.”

The Home Office plan to have only statutory bodies referring victims of trafficking excludes specialist charities who understand this work, and leaves it instead to police officers and social workers, some of whom do not know what the National Referral Mechanism is.

Chloe Setter from ECPAT, said: “We train frontline professionals, with many of them unaware the system exists to help identify victims of trafficking.”

Tatiana Jardan, from Human Trafficking Foundation, said: “The recommendations don’t go beyond the 45 days; it is like re-shuffling chairs inside a room. They may improve the current situation but the problem of life beyond the shelter has not been tackled. Victims will face the problems of no support from the government.”

Last July Karen Bradley, the minister for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime, told the House of Commons: “The current UK Government policy goes further than the European Convention on Action against Trafficking obligations by providing a minimum of 45 days’ support once a Reasonable Grounds decision is made.”

Each year 150 people leave Medaille Trust’s six safe houses. Mike Emberson told me: “We may know what happens to five per cent of the people who leave our shelters each year. There is no tracking of where they go or end up from the government.”

Some of these people could end up living homeless, involved in the sex trade or return to their trafficker.

Some things are getting better. Speaking today as the government’s bill passed into law, Unicef UK's executive director David Bull said: “We welcome the fact that the Modern Slavery Act includes a defence for child victims against prosecution for crimes committed directly as a consequence of their trafficking.”

However, he said: “We believe there is still more work to be done to ensure trafficked children are not at risk of being wrongfully prosecuted and even sentenced for these acts. Our work does not stop here.”

Sarah’s story

Lately I met Sarah (not her real name), a young women from Ghana, who came to the UK hoping to make a new life.

Her room at the shelter is cosy, filled with pictures of her family from back home in Ghana, and some photos of Sarah with other girls from the shelter. She starts by telling me about why she moved to the UK and how she was hoping to start a new life while supporting her parents back home.

Living with her aunt in London Sarah was subjected to daily beatings and forced to work for no pay. 

“I needed someone to fund me when I first came to the UK, I wanted help,” she told me. “For six years my aunt beat me and would tell my family back home a different story.”

Sarah mentioned nothing of this to her family in Ghana; she didn’t want to upset them: “A friend of mine helped me escape and took me to the authorities. I just didn’t want to go back to that house,” she said.

Sarah was placed into the specialist care of the Medaille Trust. She has been waiting for more than a year while the Home Office determines whether or not she is a victim of trafficking.

If the decision goes against her she will have to leave the shelter within 48 hours and find her own accommodation.

If she is identified as a victim of trafficking, she will have to start an asylum claim in order to put a roof over her head.

For now, her life is on hold.

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Some references

The National Referral Mechanism: A Five year Review. A report by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group for the Joint Committee on the Modern Slavery Bill, February 2014

Report on an unannounced inspection of the short-term holding facility at Heathrow Airport Terminal 1, by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, inspection 30 September 2014, published March 2015.

It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to fight modern slavery, Centre for Social Justice, 2013

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