The government decreased protection efforts; while more victims were referred to the NRM, the government passed laws and introduced measures that experts and NGOs widely and consistently assess could negatively impact victim identification and protection and average wait times for decisions on official victim status exceeded 600 days. During that time, victims continued to receive support; however, gaps remained in protections for foreign national and British victims, and victims accessing long-term support. The government’s NRM was the framework for identifying and providing care and support for victims. Designated first responders, such as police, border force, local authorities, and NGOs, continued to refer potential victims into the NRM. In 2022, first responders referred 16,938 potential trafficking victims for care nationwide, a 33 percent increase from 12,727 in 2021. This was the highest recorded number of referrals since the NRM began. The Home Office maintained a detailed online database with disaggregated information, including source of referral, nationality, jurisdiction handling the referral, and type of trafficking. Of the referred victims, 79 percent were male and 21 percent were female. Authorities identified 7,019 child victims, an increase from 5,468 in 2021. Authorities categorized 2,281 referrals as “county lines” cases (an increase from 2,053 in 2021), the majority (1,710) of these referrals were boys. Albanian nationals (4,613) made up the majority of identified victims, followed by UK citizens (4,185), and Eritrean nationals (1,171). Labor trafficking, including forced criminality, was the most common form of exploitation. In Scotland, first responders referred 621 potential victims to the NRM, an increase from 419 in 2021. Following the pandemic, in 2022, Police Scotland reported the highest number of potential victims ever recorded, with labor trafficking, including forced criminality, as the main form of exploitation. In Northern Ireland, officials reported a significant increase in the number of potential victims referred to the NRM from 363 in 2021 to 547 in 2022. In Wales, first responders referred 547 potential victims to the NRM, an increase from 479 in 2021.
Even though the number of victims identified increased significantly, NGOs observed the quality and timeliness of protection services for victims decreased. The Home Office’s Single Competent Authority (SCA) handled most NRM referrals and ensured victims continued to receive support. The “reasonable grounds” threshold, established by the MSA, and amended by the 2022 Nationality and Borders Act (NABA), functioned as a gateway to support for potential victims of trafficking. Once a potential victim was referred to the NRM, the SCA made a “reasonable grounds” decision whether the individual may be a trafficking victim. The government reported the SCA aimed to make a “reasonable grounds” decision within five working days. If the SCA made a positive “reasonable grounds” decision, adult victims in England and Wales received support for at least 30 days or up to the point when a “conclusive grounds” decision was made, whichever was longer. In Northern Ireland, potential victims received support for a minimum of 45 days while authorities reviewed their cases. In Scotland, the policy remained for potential victims to receive support for 90 days or until authorities made a conclusive grounds decision, whichever came first. If authorities recognized an individual as a victim per the “conclusive grounds” determination, the victim was not guaranteed additional recovery periods or services, under NABA, whereas previously victims received a minimum of 45 additional days of support. In the fourth quarter of 2022, the average “conclusive grounds” decision took 642 days; of the 16,938 NRM referrals during 2022, 76 percent (12,907) were still awaiting conclusive grounds determinations at the end of the year. In the meantime, while potential victims continued to receive services under the Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract (MSVCC), the high volume of cases and length of a victim’s care affected the quality of care; a government-requested 2022 report on the MSVCC called for increased oversight, improvements to facilities, and staff training.
In addition, foreign national victims without legal status were unable to work until they received a positive conclusive grounds decision, which could entitle them to remain in the UK outside the immigration rules, known as “discretionary leave.” While the government provided subsistence payments to victims who had entered the NRM, observers noted victims were unable to meet their essential needs with the payments. For potential victims in the asylum system, the prolonged inability to work may increase the risk of trafficking. In response, in December 2022, the government raised the amount of payments in response to the High Court ruling that subsistence entitlements of asylum-seekers were insufficient, although NGOs note the increase was not enough. Since November 2021, the Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority (IECA) made reasonable and conclusive grounds decisions in cases involving adults subject to immigration control, including adults in deportation proceedings and individuals served a notice of intent of potential inadmissibility of an asylum claim. The government created the IECA, with the intent of speeding up the decision-making process for the backlog of “conclusive grounds” decisions. The former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC) and NGOs strongly criticized the creation of the IECA and the return to a “dual system” approach for identifying victims – one for UK citizens and the other for foreign nationals – noting that many victims who lacked secure immigration status may not be identified or protected and would subsequently fear coming forward to seek support; observers noted the government did not consult with civil society or the survivor community prior to making this change. Government officials in England and Wales were required to notify the Home Office when they came across potential victims of trafficking; such “duty to notify” referrals increased 43 percent from 3,193 in 2021 to 4,580 in 2022. Observers believed this increase through the mandatory “duty to notify” could be attributed to a growing number of victims who do not wish to enter the official NRM systems due to not understanding it, fear of deportation, or concern that it would delay their asylum claims. The government did not automatically grant foreign victims legal status in the UK; authorities reviewed requests for discretionary leave on a case-by-case basis. Discretionary leave decisions were not linked to an individual’s status as a confirmed trafficking victim but were judged on individual circumstances. As of June 2021, European Economic Area (EEA) citizens were subject to immigration control and most trafficking victims from EEA countries were required to apply for discretionary leave to remain in the UK, which was granted only in a few cases. Foreign victims who were granted a reflection period could not be removed from the UK during that period. Observers noted that a positive conclusive grounds decision does not lead to ongoing support, or regularization of immigration status for foreign national victims, something which increased vulnerability to re-trafficking. Observers suggested there were gaps in British national victims’ access to services in the NRM; for example, British victims faced barriers to accessing shelter, in part due to confusion among professionals over what support they were entitled to, leading to their referral to local authorities instead of specialized support services.
On April 28, 2022, the British Parliament passed the Nationality and Borders Act (NABA) with anti-trafficking measures with the stated intent of clarifying in law the UK’s international obligations and entitlements for trafficking victims. NGOs, the UN, and media warned that many of the changes will have significant negative impacts. These measures required individuals claiming asylum to provide information to authorities related to being a trafficking victim (if applicable) within a specified time period, although the government made available a “good reasons” ground for providing information outside the specified period; increased the reasonable grounds threshold of the MSA to require proof of additional “objective factors” beyond a potential victim’s testimony before authorities could issue a reasonable grounds decision; reduced the minimum recovery period from 45 days to 30 days and limited additional recovery periods for trafficking victims; added two disqualification statuses for potential victims on the basis of bad faith or public order; and specified the criteria and circumstances by which authorities could grant confirmed victims temporary permission to remain in the UK, including where necessary for assisting victims to recover from exploitation, receive compensation, or to cooperate with a criminal investigation. Experts widely criticized NABA for what they assessed would increase the burden of proof for victim identification and create impediments regarding the disclosure of victim status; conflate human trafficking with migrant smuggling; and disqualify certain victims, including victims who committed unlawful acts as a direct result of being trafficked.
Government officials claimed undocumented migrants were misusing the NRM system to avoid deportation; however, observers noted the government’s own published data demonstrated nine out of every 10 referrals to the NRM resulted in a positive reasonable grounds decision. Similarly, UN experts criticized government statements alleging fraud or abuse in the system. Observers suggested the rhetoric exaggerating the level of fraud and abuse in the system could have a chilling effect on trafficking victims coming forward. Civil society expressed concern that the government demonstrated a narrowing of victim protections related to international obligations, lack of independent oversight, and lack of consultation with the NGO community.
In March 2023, the government introduced the draft Illegal Migration Bill and stated that the bill is intended to tackle alleged abuse of the UK’s modern slavery system by people seeking to block their removal once their asylum claim has been denied. Civil society widely criticized the draft bill, noting that it could negatively affect victims of trafficking by denying their support; lead to wrongful detention and deportation of potential victims; or hinder victim identification. GRETA also assessed the draft bill, as written as of March 2023, did not comply with the anti-trafficking convention.
NGOs expressed concern the government did not have a Victims Commissioner to provide independent oversight and called on the government to improve victim screening measures. The Home Office launched an e-learning package in 2020 for all first responders, on indicators of human trafficking to help proactively identify victims, and with instructions of how to make a referral. While referrals from NGOs designated as first responder organizations (FROs) increased during the year, civil society expressed concern over inconsistent training for FROs. Only 15 NGOs held first responder status and could refer potential victims into the NRM; observers noted that not having an adequate number and geographical reach of FROs may have left victims unidentified. FROs were responsible for training first responders in their organization. Observers noted the quality of information provided to victims on their rights varied widely among first responders and interpretation and translation services were not fully available, in practice, at all stages of the victim support process.
The government continued implementing a five-year MSVCC, valued at over £300 million ($361.45 million), with the anti-trafficking NGO sector to coordinate the provision of care for adult victims in England and Wales under the NRM. NGOs stated this contract supported 17,000 victims during the reporting period who were awaiting decisions and subsequently ran over budget, although the figure for that remains unpublished. The MSVCC provides a range of support services including safehouse accommodation, financial support to meet essential living needs and assist with social, psychological, and physical recovery, access to essential services, and a dedicated support worker to assist victims in accessing support services such as free health care and legal aid. One of the largest FROs temporarily stopped taking referrals in December 2022, demonstrating the strain on first responders. Observers noted access to legal aid remained limited for many trafficking victims. An October 2022 NGO report stated victims were not able to access timely legal aid, which created barriers in access to services or claiming asylum, with foreign national victims detained or at risk of removal. Moreover, GRETA expressed concern that potential victims were not provided legal aid prior to entering the NRM, preventing potential victims from receiving advice that would allow them to make informed choices, including whether to enter the NRM. The 2022 NABA contained legal aid provisions to ensure individuals were informed on the NRM before entering it. Observers claimed accommodation was provided according to availability rather than need and there was limited support available for victims with complex needs. Northern Ireland significantly increased its budget from £600,000 ($722,890) for the 2021-2022 fiscal year to approximately £1.5 million to £2 million ($1.81 million-$2.41 million) for the 2022-2023 fiscal year for contracted support services by two local NGOs. The Northern Ireland Assembly passed the Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims Act, which enshrined existing support and assistance for trafficking victims into law. In April 2022, Northern Ireland amended the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act 2015 to include legislative changes to the defense, protection, and support of trafficking victims. The Scottish government continued to fund the Scottish Guardianship Service to provide additional legal and practical support to unaccompanied children and victims of trafficking. The Scottish government allocated over £8 million ($9.64 million) for victim protection and assistance over the next three years. In April 2022, the Scottish government began its new Victim Centered Approach Fund to enable organizations to provide support to victims of crime, including trafficking victims.
The government continued to utilize a recovery needs assessment to tailor ongoing support to victims’ specific needs and determine the point at which a victim would exit the support services under the MSVCC. Observers asserted the recovery needs assessment was too restrictive because it placed the burden on survivors to document their ongoing need, in order to continue receiving support. Although the government funded some organizations providing some long-term care to victims, observers also noted the government did not fund many organizations providing long-term care to victims. After a confirmed victim transitioned out of MSVCC support, they could access assistance through the “reach-in service,” a post-NRM service that offered transitional support, including provision of information and assistance to housing, health care, translation, employment, and support with submitting paperwork.
Children received care through children’s services offices in local jurisdictions; social workers worked with potential child victims to assess needs and create a care plan that included health, legal, education, and accommodation support. The government reported children’s care services were under increasing pressure due to the high number of unaccompanied children arriving in small boats crossing the English Channel. The government continued the Independent Child Trafficking Guardians (ICTG) program rollout; the program covered two thirds of local authorities across England and Wales. NGOs called on the government to extend the ICTG scheme across the country and continue support to individuals beyond 18 years. NGOs highlighted concerns about the difficulty of safeguarding children whom the government relocated away from their home to parts of the country where services were available; criminal gangs actively targeted vulnerable children who were taken out of their communities and ran away or went missing. Observers also noted unaccompanied migrant children were particularly vulnerable to trafficking and many of these children went missing after their arrival in the UK. Media reported 4,600 unaccompanied migrant children were housed in hotels and provided limited assistance and supervision since July 2021, putting children at risk. Between 2020 and 2022, media reported more than 500 potential or confirmed trafficking victims went missing; the majority were Albanian boys. The Home Office continued its pilot program to devolve NRM decision-making for children to local authorities. Civil society commended this as a way to produce more reliable decision making and allow children access to services faster. In 2022, the Scottish government continued to evaluate the Scottish Guardianship Scheme, which applies to all unaccompanied children. Since April 2022, the Scottish government funded two victim navigators to support victims in the criminal justice system process. Scotland and Northern Ireland required the appointment of independent legal guardians for child trafficking victims and trained the guardians on the support services available.
To avoid re-traumatization, authorities encouraged police to use intelligence-led investigations, pre-recorded cross-examination, and allowed victims to apply for reporting restrictions and other measures to maintain anonymity. In 2022, the Home Office funded four police forces and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) to improve support measures for victims in the criminal justice system. Additionally, the Home Office commissioned independent research on models of support for victims navigating the criminal justice process; the results have not yet been published. The courts allowed victims to testify by video, behind a screen, or with the public removed from the courtroom during hearings. In September 2022, courts in England and Wales began use of pre-recorded cross examination. Courts could grant restitution in a criminal case; however, NGOs noted courts infrequently granted restitution. Although victims could apply for compensation through civil suits, this remedy was difficult to access given the small number of legal aid providers available to file such claims and some victims were unaware of their entitlement to compensation. During the 2021-2022 fiscal year, courts granted a total of £1.2 million ($1.45 million), a small part of this was compensation to trafficking victims in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Moreover, traffickers could appeal or contest a compensation order and observers noted traffickers often moved assets, meaning that awards were often not paid in practice. A 2022 policy paper by the IASC found courts granted only 41 compensation orders and eight reparation orders to trafficking victims since 2018. GRETA further noted free legal assistance was not provided in practice to victims seeking compensation under this scheme in England and Wales in spite of a complex compensation procedure and the requirement that victims prove they have suffered a physical or psychiatric injury as a direct result of a violent crime in order to receive an award; the Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority could withhold or reduce compensation if the victim did not report the circumstances of the injury to the police and could not offer a reasonable explanation for not doing so, did not cooperate with law enforcement, or had a criminal conviction.
Victims had a statutory defense in England and Wales for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked; the defense did not apply to the most serious crimes, such as sexual offenses or crimes involving serious violence. In these cases, CPS had to consider whether it was in the public interest to prosecute the trafficking victim. In a recent case, courts convicted and sentenced two Albanian men on drug charges; however, they were later released from prison when the courts established they were trafficking victims. NABA also specified two “victim” disqualification statuses on the basis of public order and “bad faith,” where the victim is no longer protected from removal from the UK and no longer entitled to assistance. The stated purpose of the “bad faith” measure is to prevent the NRM from being misused by those that may fraudulently claim to be a trafficking victim. While NABA excludes victims from being disqualified for certain offenses, observers are concerned trafficking victims may be inappropriately penalized victims for crimes they committed as a result of being trafficked. Additionally, NGOs reported authorities failed to identify British national victims, due to perceiving them as victims involved in criminal activity instead of as trafficking victims. A recent NGO report found the number of potential trafficking victims in immigration detention centers tripled in four years. In February 2022, a parliamentary group published a report stating there was “compelling evidence” that some British women and children currently detained in Syria were trafficking victims and claimed the government did not screen these individuals for trafficking indicators.