Ending Human Trafficking in the UK

As an organisation that works to end human trafficking, we support survivors through law enforcement investigations and helping them to apply for asylum. We also lobby for policy and legislation that will protect people who are exploited.

Human trafficking gangs target a range of vulnerable people, from children to economic migrants. They trick them with promises of prosperity and opportunity, only to trap them in debt bondage and exploit them for labour.

The UK is becoming an origin country for trafficking

The UK is a key destination and origin country for trafficking in adults and children. Gangs exploit vulnerable migrants, including EEA citizens and asylum seekers, using false hope and ambition to lure them into trafficking operations with promises of substantial wages. They then coerce them into illicit activity such as shoplifting, cannabis cultivation, illegal gambling and drug distribution, sex trafficking and labor trafficking in agriculture, factories, hotels, food services, nail salons and car washes.

But it’s important to note that modern slavery is not just about sex or labour exploitation that crosses borders. It is also about domestic servitude, a form of sex trafficking that sucks in women and girls from local communities and exploits them through their relationship with their perpetrator. Those victims could be the person living next door to you, working in your restaurant or cleaning your office every night. It is vital that you learn to spot the signs of these individuals and report them to the authorities.

The UK’s anti-slavery system is not set up to support people who are being exploited

In 2022, a criminal network trafficked people from Eastern Europe to England and Wales for the purpose of exploiting them in sexual, labour, and property crimes. This was a large-scale operation, and the victims endured a life of oppressive deprivation and anguish. The victims were subjected to brutality, ill-treatment, and violence by the criminals they were forced to work for. They were deprived of sleep, food, clothing, and clean water. The abuse was often psychological, sexual, and physical in nature.

Survivors have complex needs and are subject to the trauma of their exploitation (Anti-Slavery International et al, 2020: 40). Many survivors do not access long-term support because the services provided through the government Victim Care Contract are not tailored to their specific recovery requirements and result in a postcode lottery of provision.

Currently, potential slavery victims are referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) through anonymous Notification of Potential Slavery Forms submitted to first responders. The NRM process is time-limited, and if a person cannot prove they were trafficked to the UK and has no other right to live here, they must be supported to return to their country of origin.

The UK’s migrant population is at risk of trafficking

The UK’s migrant population is at risk of being trafficked into slavery. It can happen to men, women and children of all ages. It can be for labour exploitation, sex exploitation or criminal enterprise. It can involve gangs that force people to act as couriers for drugs, or into agriculture, factories, construction and food services. It can also be for more sinister purposes such as sex trafficking and in places like nail bars and car washes.

Victims are referred into the NRM system by first responders including police, the Border Force, local authorities and NGOs. However, observers reported that many potential victims do not wish to enter the NRM system because they fear being deported and that their asylum claims will be delayed. Observers also report that long-term care and support for victims remains inadequate. Foreign victims identified as trafficked can apply for discretionary leave to stay in the UK, based on their individual circumstances.

The UK’s anti-trafficking system is failing to protect children

Many victims of exploitation have suffered psychological and physical abuse, social restrictions, lack of access to primary care and services, debt bondage, and inadequate working conditions. They may also have been deprived of their childhood, education, and cultural identity and feel alienated from family and community.

The UK government has implemented the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and its National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which allows individuals deemed to be victims of trafficking to receive temporary government support. Observers note that long wait times to obtain a conclusive grounds decision within the NRM remain an issue. Observers also report that victims who are not citizens of the UK face obstacles in accessing long-term care and reintegration support.

Children are trafficked for sex and labor exploitation, including in domestic service, nail salons, cannabis farms, food processing industries, and car washes. A significant number of those referred to the NRM claim that their exploitation took place entirely in the UK.

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