Almost 30 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to UK police forces every day on average during the first nine months of 2020.
Home Office figures show 7,576 potential slavery and trafficking victims were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s apparatus for identifying and supporting victims – between January and September last year.
That is the equivalent of 28 every day, and was an increase of 4.2 per cent on the same period in 2019 – despite fears the coronavirus pandemic could push slavery networks and their victims further underground.
Almost half the 2020 referrals (3,654) concerned children aged 17 or under, or adults exploited as children.
But charities say the NRM figures are an underestimate of the true extent of slavery in the UK, as adults need to consent to a referral.
It also relies on designated first responders such as police and councils being aware of the programme and how to refer victims – something the Human Trafficking Foundation says is lacking.
A recent study in the Cambridge Journal of Evidence Based Policing, which examined cases of Vietnamese nationals arrested for cannabis cultivation in Surrey and Sussex, found police demonstrated “ignorance” and a lack of awareness of modern slavery.
“Even when officers had concerns about modern slavery, no appropriate crime was recorded and no formalised investigation followed,” the study said.
It added that none of the three Vietnamese nationals examined in depth had told police they were victims despite later telling academics stories “consistent with their having been trafficked and subjected to debt bondage”.
“It really is a training issue,” says Tamara Barnett, director of the Human Trafficking Foundation, which brings together charities and parliamentarians to tackle slavery.
“The Government has done a little bit and published an online training tool for first responders but really it needs face to face training, and it’s not statutory this training.
“I’ve gone into rooms with police and social workers who have statutory duties as the Modern Slavery Act says to identify victims and I I’ll ask how many know about the NRM and I might only get a few hands sometimes.
“So you have a whole room full of people who have no idea.”
The NRM figures refer to potential victims. Once referred, the Home Office will make a ‘reasonable grounds decision’ to determine if the person is likely a victim.
Of the 7,623 people the Home Office made decisions on between January and September, 6,980 (92 per cent) were judged to be genuine victims and could access accommodation and other support.
It also made 2,484 ‘conclusive grounds’ decisions – the second stage of the process, in which the Home Office makes a definitive ruling – of which 89 per cent were positive.
When asked about a lack of training for police officers, the Home Office said it had allocated £2 million this year to support police tackle modern slavery and had invested £11.3 million in the Modern Slavery Police Transformation Programme in the last three years.