A protest by the A21 campaign in London against trafficking and modern slavery. Photograph: Matthew Chattle/Rex/Shutterstock
Salvation Army and other groups say without more resources potential victims could slip through the net
Fears are mounting that modern slavery survivors could be left at risk of retrafficking within the UK due to a lack of resources to support them, charities are warning.
The Salvation Army says it has taken an “unprecedented emergency measure” to suspend accepting referrals of potential victims, while other charities doing similar work say the system appears to be at breaking point.
The director of anti-trafficking and modern slavery at the Salvation Army, Kathy Betteridge, said: “The Salvation Army volunteer first responder service has not closed, but we took the decision to temporarily suspend accepting new referrals for a short period so we could give proper attention to the large number of new cases recently referred to us.”
She said the organisation had signposted potential victims to other organisations and was still dealing with some urgent cases.
“The fact that we had to take this unprecedented emergency measure shows how much strain the first responder system is under,” said Betteridge.
The Salvation Army has a government contract to support trafficking victims who are accepted into the government’s national referral mechanism (NRM).
The NRM provides a support package and allows a victim’s case to be considered by the Home Office. In order to be referred to the NRM, a range of statutory and non-statutory first responder organisations designated by the government, including the Salvation Army, investigate their circumstances for evidence of trafficking.
Charities say that if first responders do not have the resources to carry out these initial investigations there is a risk that potential victims could slip through the net, leaving them unable to access the support they may be entitled to and placing them at risk of being re trafficked.
Kalayaan, which works to support migrant domestic workers, is also a government-designated first responder and has raised similar concerns to those of the Salvation Army.
The organisation says an increased number of referrals, especially since mid-December 2022, has led to the system becoming overwhelmed and that it now “appears to be at breaking point”.
The Home Office says in the third quarter of 2022 there were a record 4,586 potential trafficking victims referred to the NRM.
The concerns raised by charities working with trafficking victims come soon after the Home Office tightened the rules, reducing the minimum recovery period for trafficking victims from 45 to 30 days and raising the evidential bar potential victims have to meet before accessing support.
“First responders are often the first point of contact for survivors seeking help and play a vital role in identifying and getting people to safety. We recognise that all [first responders] do their best but are working in an under-resourced system. It’s essential the system is properly funded,” said Betteridge.
Peter Wieltschnig of Focus on Labour Exploitation said: “The government is stripping back access to an already limited system. Even when survivors are able to access support and protection, for many there is no right to work, significant delays and extremely low grants of leave to remain. The NRM system in its current form is not meeting people’s needs. It’s prolonging the impact of trafficking. If victims continue to be shut out of the NRM their risk of re trafficking is also increased.”
Avril Sharp of Kalayaan said: “We are deeply concerned that with every day that passes, slavery survivors who may have been trafficked or enslaved either across borders or internally within the UK, will be at real and immediate risk of being re trafficked again within the UK due to a failure to act swiftly and decisively by the UK government. We sincerely hope that the prime minister’s next action is to take steps to resolve this critical situation.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to do everything we can in supporting modern slavery victims as they rebuild their lives and it is crucial that first responders – such as charities and the police – who refer them to our system are robustly trained. We have a range of materials available to support this work and are developing a hub where organisations which aren’t responders can learn about modern slavery indicators, leading to better identification of victims.”