The government maintained protection efforts. Through the NRM, authorities referred 10,613 potential trafficking victims for care nationwide in 2020; authorities referred 10,616 victims to care in 2019 and 6,993 in 2018. The Home Office maintained a detailed database online with disaggregated information, including source of referral, nationality, jurisdiction handling the referral, type of trafficking, and disposition of review. Of the referred victims, 74 percent were male and 26 percent were female. Authorities identified 4,946 children, an increase from 4,547 in 2019. Authorities flagged 1,544 referrals as “county lines” referrals, the majority (1,247) of which were boys. The majority of identified victims were UK citizens (3,560), followed by Albanian (1,638) and Vietnamese (653) nationals. Labor trafficking, including forced criminality, was the most common form of exploitation of adults and children. In Scotland, 387 potential victims were referred to the NRM, a decrease from 512 in 2019. In Northern Ireland, officials reported a significant increase in the number of potential victims referred to the NRM from 91 in 2019 to 128 in 2020.
The NRM was the framework for identifying and providing care and support for victims. First responders, such as police, Border Force, local authorities, and NGOs, continued to refer potential victims into the NRM throughout the pandemic. The Home Office’s single case management unit handled all NRM referrals and ensured victims continued to receive support. After a “reasonable grounds” decision that an individual was a trafficking victim, adult victims received a recovery and reflection period during which they could access support and protection measures, while awaiting a “conclusive grounds” decision, which was made no sooner than 45 calendar days after the “reasonable grounds” determination. If authorities recognized an individual as a victim per the “conclusive grounds” determination, they guaranteed the victim a minimum of 45 additional days of move-on support; the government utilized a recovery needs assessment to tailor ongoing support to the victim’s specific recovery needs and to determine the point at which a victim would exit the support services under the Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract. As of June 2020, authorities completed 1,132 recovery needs assessments. The Home Office published updated guidance in August 2020 that incorporated feedback from key stakeholders to improve operational processes and provide policy clarity on the recovery needs assessment process. In Northern Ireland potential victims received support for a minimum of 45 days while authorities reviewed their cases, and in Scotland potential victims received support for 90 days or until authorities made a conclusive grounds decision, whichever came first. Support was also available for longer than 90 days in some circumstances. The Wales Anti-Slavery Leadership Group’s “Survivor Care Pathway” provided a long-term post-NRM individualized plan for survivors.
NGOs and independent experts expressed concern victims often faced long wait times to receive a conclusive grounds determination under the NRM and that the current system did not adequately ensure victims exiting the system had a plan for sustainable independence, particularly foreign victims who may not be allowed to work, putting them at greater risk of re-trafficking. According to the Home Office, of the 10,613 NRM referrals during 2020, 8,665 were awaiting conclusive grounds determinations at the end of the year. Independent experts cautioned the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of 2020 could lead to further restrictions on foreign victims’ ability to work while in the NRM. In December 2020, the High Court ruled the Home Office’s policy on discretionary leave for trafficking victims under the NRM was unlawful; the Home Office planned to appeal the ruling. According to NGOs, authorities detained at least 2,914 potential victims of trafficking for immigration violations between January 2019 and September 2020. The government continued to explore ways to amend the NRM, including by issuing possible reforms via a press release in March 2021; NGOs roundly criticized the press release for insinuating criminals were abusing the NRM system and conflating immigration and human trafficking, and because the proposed changes risked deterring victims from being identified and criminalizing some potential victims. The government produced e-learning tools on victim identification and referral for first responders. The NCA partnered with the legal sector to highlight “red flag indicators” to assist in victim identification and worked with the health service to improve guidance and training on interacting with sex trafficking victims. The Modern Slavery Police Transformation Unit continued to deliver trainings to law enforcement officers and first responders across the UK to identify and safeguard trafficking victims.
The government awarded a five-year, £281 million ($383.88 million) contract to an NGO to coordinate the provision of care for adult victims in England and Wales under the NRM. In January 2021, the government announced the introduction of minimum standards of care in all future contracts for support services to adult trafficking victims and an associated inspection regime. In response to the pandemic, the government distributed phones and data plans to facilitate remote support and appointments, provided payment cards for the distribution of pre-paid victim support payments, increased cleaning and provided personal protective equipment for safe houses, secured transportation for symptomatic victims, and implemented a temporary policy to ensure victims could remain in safe houses for at least three months. The IASC urged the government to increase efforts to provide safe mainstream accommodation for victims after they exit a safe house. An NGO further observed many female trafficking victims were not offered safe house accommodations, but were rather placed in unsafe asylum housing. The government included £1.73 million ($2.36 million) for services for trafficking victims in its £750 million ($1.02 billion) pandemic-related relief package. In July 2020, the government increased weekly payments to potential victims receiving other forms of support, such as medical, legal, and educational services; increased weekly payments for child dependents; and introduced new weekly payments for pregnant and young child victims. In May 2020, the Scottish Government announced approximately £1.4 million ($1.9 million) in additional funding to the two NGOs providing victim protection and support. To avoid re-traumatization, authorities encouraged police to use intelligence-led investigations, pre-recorded cross-examination for vulnerable victims, and allowed victims to apply for reporting restrictions and other measures to maintain anonymity. The government encouraged efforts of private companies to assist in reintegration, particularly through employment of survivors. Under the “Bright Future” campaign, a national retail cooperative continued to hire and train survivors in partnership with an NGO, a model the government promoted for expansion; as of October 2020, Bright Future had successfully placed 63 survivors into permanent employment. The government engaged directly with survivors to better understand their recovery needs and experiences with the NRM and worked with the independent regulator for health and social care services to solicit survivor feedback for the creation of an inspection regime for government-commissioned victim support services.
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 rollout of ICTGs continued throughout England and Wales and focused on areas with the highest need; these guardians provided an additional source of advice, support, and advocacy for child trafficking victims. Nevertheless, an NGO noted the government did not provide a timeline for full implementation of the ICTG service, which has supported over 900 children since its inception in February 2017. NGOs highlighted concerns about the difficulty of safeguarding children who the government relocated away from their home to parts of the country where services are available; criminal gangs actively targeted vulnerable children who are taken out of their communities and run away or go missing. The Home Office launched a pilot program to devolve NRM decision-making for children to local authorities. Throughout 2020, the IASC collaborated with the Home Office to convene roundtables for local authorities to discuss potential approaches to devolved decision making. The MSA review committee recommended implementation of the ICTG system nationally, along with sufficient duration for providing services to child victims, in addition to requiring police to track cases of missing children until they are located, regardless of timeframe. NGOs continued to express concern that child victims who reached the age of 18 and therefore were no longer eligible for the ICTG service would be at risk of re-trafficking. The government committed to extending the ICTG service to individuals over the age of 18 in select sites as part of the continued rollout. In October 2020, the government assessed the role of the ICTG Regional Practice Coordinators (RPCs). RPCs worked with the social workers that supported children who had a parental figure, whereas ICTG direct workers provided direct support to children without a parental figure. NGOs expressed concern children assigned an RPC did not receive the full benefits of an ICTG direct worker who could advocate on their behalf. Scotland and Northern Ireland also required the appointment of independent legal guardians for child trafficking victims and trained the guardians on the support services available.
The government did not automatically grant foreign victims legal status in the UK; authorities reviewed requests for permission to remain in the UK outside the immigration rules, known as “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. Foreign victims who were granted a reflection period could not be removed from the UK during that period. Foreign victims who assisted with investigations were eligible to apply for residency. However, observers reported residence permits were only issued in a minority of cases and then often only for 12 months. NGOs continued to express concern some foreign victims may have declined to enter the NRM for fear of deportation upon exiting the system. Under the EU Settlement Scheme, EEA citizens had to apply for legal status to remain in the UK by the end of June 2021; in January 2021, the Home Office published reasonable grounds for missing this deadline, of which being a victim of exploitation was included. The government increased funding to local authorities and organizations who assisted victims with applying for status under the scheme and made resources available on the government’s website. Foreign overseas domestic workers (ODW) could legally change employers during the six-month period of their visa. Workers on the ODW visa identified as trafficking victims could apply for a two-year visa as a domestic worker, although NGOs contended workers who had suffered abuse would be unlikely to want to return to the same sector. NGOs urged the government to adopt reforms to the ODW visa, particularly in light of the heightened exploitation overseas domestic workers faced as a result of the pandemic. Foreign nationals identified as trafficking victims could apply for discretionary leave to remain in the UK if supporting the investigation of a trafficker, seeking compensation through a civil claim against the perpetrator, or in some cases, based on personal circumstances. Foreign victims could petition for asylum, based on risks faced if returned to their country of origin.
Victims had a statutory defense in England and Wales for most crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking; the defense did not apply to the most serious crimes, such as sexual offenses or offenses involving serious violence. In these cases, the CPS had to consider whether it was in the public interest to prosecute the trafficking victim. The IASC concluded the statutory defense was inadequate to protect trafficking victims and police often did not consider the possibility of forced criminality at the beginning of an investigation, risking the punishment of victims. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in February 2021 that the UK failed to protect two victims of trafficking by punishing them for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit. In another case, the government granted a last-minute reprieve from deportation to 10 Jamaican citizens in December 2020, some of whom the government identified as potential trafficking victims. Following criticism from NGOs and independent observers that the government did not sufficiently screen migrants crossing the English Channel for indicators of trafficking, the government issued a statement in October 2020 urging law enforcement authorities not to arrest smugglers who showed signs of exploitation by criminal gangs. Observers expressed concern the government stripped citizenship from British citizens who went to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS without screening them for indicators of trafficking, despite indications some of them may have been child victims of trafficking. The courts allowed victims to testify by video, behind a screen, or with the public removed from the courtroom during hearings. Courts could grant restitution, but only after conviction of the trafficker and if satisfied that the defendant had the means to pay. However, NGOs noted courts infrequently granted restitution and although victims could apply for compensation, this remedy was difficult to access given the small number of legal aid providers available to file such claims. 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. In October 2020, the British Embassy in Slovakia and the Slovak government issued a press release informing Slovak trafficking victims who had been exploited in the UK about the possibility of receiving restitution from the seized assets of convicted traffickers and highlighted an August 2020 UK court ruling that convicted two Slovak nationals to six-year prison sentences and ordered them to pay £52,000 ($71,040) and £78,000 ($106,560), respectively, to their two victims.