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Last week the Home Office published its latest quarterly statistics on the number of slavery victims entering what is known as the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – a system for identifying and supporting potential victims of slavery in the UK.  

On the face of it – good news.  The number of victims of slavery being identified is falling.  But when you consider the impact of the pandemic, what the NRM actually counts and some underlying trends we can see emerging, the outlook is less positive.  

Let’s begin with the numbers themselves.  What they show is that the number of potential victims identified and referred for support in the first six months of 2020 has dramatically decreased – for the first time since 2016. During April – June 2020 there were 2,209 potential victims identified which is a 23% decrease from 2,865 victims identified in the previous quarter, and a staggering 34% decrease from 3,350 in quarter 4 of 2019 – the peak of referrals.

As ever these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.  In order to be referred to the NRM and, therefore, feature in the statistics, adult victims need to give their consent. Many do not.   

Our own research, published this year and based on police data, suggests that there are more than 100,000 men, women and children in slavery in the UK – that’s ten times the official figure for 2019.* It is also more than the number of people who live in Bath.  To illustrate this, on the day the Home Office’s numbers were published ITV had an undercover report exposing the amount of sex slavery in London’s most exclusive suburbs.  They found property after property where victims were being sold and abused, with demand for sex services remaining high even during the pandemic.  

Of course, in a time of global pandemic it makes sense that fewer victims of slavery are being found – but not because they are not here.  In our report, It Still Happens Here we found detection rates have gone down, partly due to many businesses and risk industries shutting down, such as nail bars, restaurants, car washes, as well as travel restrictions and borders being closed. However, we also saw modern slavery police teams being temporarily redeployed, local authority workers shifting the priority, understandably so, due to the strict lockdown measures. Slavery didn’t stop, but the criminal behaviour certainly changed focusing on the easiest of prey – vulnerable children who fall through the gaps of the system.

This is reflected in some fascinating figures and changing trends that are being shown in the NRM quarterly figures.  

For the first time ever the number of child victims of slavery has surpassed the number of adults. In quarter 2 of 2020, 58% (1,274) of all referrals were children, with 65% of them being British children, predominantly boys. Adults accounted for 38% (843) of referrals, of whom 63% (528) were exploited in the UK. 

In addition, the figures suggest significant changes in the types of exploitation, with 57% involving criminal exploitation. Sexual exploitation accounted for only 7% with a further 6% for a combination of sexual and other types of exploitation. 

It is obvious that what we are seeing is a sharply increasing number of British boys being targeted by ruthless gangs and exploited for criminal purposes, mainly for transporting drugs across the ‘county lines’. These are children that are being failed by the system.  

However, we should also ask ourselves what are we not seeing and where are those victims who we are not finding? Modern slavery is a hidden crime by nature made even more invisible by the pandemic.

The Government should not conclude that the fight against slavery is being won, and the numbers of victims identified and referred to the NRM reflect that.  Our view, and the evidence we see in our work on the frontline of fighting slavery in the UK, says the opposite – people trafficking in the UK is increasing and we need to be on the front foot to stop it. 

*NRM statistics UK: End of the year summary 2019

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