Briefing: Human trafficking in the UK

Written by: Christopher Desira


As many as 13,000 people are thought to be held in modern slavery in the UK today, with up to 25% believed to be minors. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 sets out the framework for their protection. Under that Act, certain public authorities such as police and local authorities have a duty to notify the Secretary of State about suspected victims of slavery or human trafficking through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

Once the potential victim is flagged, the Single Competent Authority (SCA), a department of the Home Office, evaluates the credibility of the claim. The potential victim then receives what is called a “Reasonable Grounds Decision,” which states whether the Home Office believes there are reasonable grounds to believe the person is a victim. This usually happens relatively quickly, with the goal being to get a decision within five working days of receiving the referral. The test for a Reasonable Grounds Decision is whether a reasonable person would think there are reasonable grounds to believe the individual is a victim of modern slavery considering the information in the mind of the decision maker.

The credibility of the victim’s account is assessed based on the potential victim behaviour and information provided by external parties, such as the organisation referring the potential victim. If the Home Office identifies the person as a victim of human trafficking, they will send out a positive Conclusive Grounds Decision. This takes longer, and requires further investigation, during which The Home Office will usually ask for additional documentation and testimony from the potential victim. Whilst the Home Office is making their decision, the potential victim is entitled to support services and medical assistance. Potential victims who are minors receive support from local authorities to safeguard them.

A positive Conclusive Grounds Decision means the Home Office believe the person is a victim. It is supposed to ensure that the victim gets extra protections throughout their processing in the UK immigration system, for example, when charging them with crimes relating to the trafficking. A common scenario is of Vietnamese nationals, usually young people, who are trafficked to the UK to work on cannabis farms. In fact, in 2020, more children than adults were referred through the NRM system for the first time ever recorded, though they were of course not all Vietnamese.

The government has frequently said they are committed to tackling modern slavery and eradicating human trafficking. Billboards and ads about the Home Office’s campaign against modern slavery can be found across the country, and especially at ports of entry such as St Pancras Station or international airports. Ms. Patel has made many promises and speeches about it both in the UK and abroad. Ending trafficking and modern slavery is her purported reason for wanting to stop Channel Crossings. Yet, the Home Office continues to fail potential and confirmed victims.

In theory, if potential victims are confirmed as victims, that should be taken into account when charging them criminally for their offences. In practice, this is not always implemented as it should be. Earlier this year, for example, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the UK to pay €25,000 for failure to protect two victims of trafficking, who were trafficked when they were minors. Additionally, delays in decision-making are frequent, with potential victims waiting for a conclusive decision for months, often locked up in detention centres while they wait.

Additionally, being a confirmed victim of human trafficking does not ensure that the victim is allowed to stay in the UK. In theory, the Home Office may grant the victims discretionary leave based on compassionate grounds, but there is no rule that they must do so. In reality, leave is rarely granted, and the UK’s overall track record is poor. The Guardian reported that over the past five years, only 7% of confirmed trafficking victims were granted leave to remain in the UK. Those who are sent back to their country of origin are at heightened risk of re-trafficking or other abuse in their home country. Yet, instead of expanding support, Ms. Patel is pushing through the Nationality and Borders Bill, which includes proposals to narrow the grounds for discretionary leave to remain.

While awareness of trafficking and modern slavery is growing, many institutions and caseworkers are not equipped to deal with the extensive trauma slavery entails. The reality is that an overloaded immigration system inherently suspicious of claims made is not, and will never be, able to support victims adequately, yet it is all we have got.

If you suspect modern slavery, report it to the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 or the police on 101. In an emergency always call 999. Don’t leave it to someone else. Your information could save a life.