Skip to main content
Groups of shadowed people on a cobbled street

Authorities “miss many opportunities” to protect British nationals from modern slavery, new research shows

New research: improving support for British survivors of modern slavery

Research by the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute has shown UK authorities “miss many opportunities” to protect British nationals from being exploited in modern slavery, and when they do get identified as potential victims, they have faced “a cycle of closed doors.”

The research, published today, is being launched in the House of Lords to policy makers, practitioners, local authorities and academics.

It was commissioned by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) and carried out by St Mary’s University Twickenham in partnership with the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull and Justice & Care and Craig Barlow Consultancy and Training.

The team surveyed and interviewed over 50 professionals working with people affected by modern slavery, as well as interviewing seven survivors, to paint a complex picture of systemic barriers creating social and economic vulnerabilities in relation to modern slavery. The lack of awareness amongst services to intervene early and protect British nationals from exploitation was a key feature.

Key findings include:

  • UK professionals from social services, education, mental health services and the criminal justice system “miss many opportunities” to protect British nationals from being exploited in modern slavery.
  • Contextual and societal factors contribute to British nationals becoming vulnerable to being exploited. A lack of support to access safe housing, family support, mental health, and substance misuse increased vulnerability to exploitation.
  • Professionals who interact with vulnerable British nationals during exploitation often fail to recognise them as potential victims of modern slavery due to misunderstandings about modern slavery and find it difficult to spot the signs of exploitation, which can result in them being treated as criminals rather than victims

Alicia Heys, Lecturer in Modern Slavery at the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull, said: “The report finds that there are missed opportunities to identify and protect British nationals prior to and during exploitation and that there is confusion over what support they are entitled to because of their nationality. We hope these findings will be used to generate conversations between front line practitioners to help identify where gaps in knowledge occur and encourage multi-agency working with honest conversations to help ensure the British national victims no longer fall through the gaps.”

The number of British nationals referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the national framework for identifying and supporting potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking, has increased year on year, rising from 90 in 2013 to 3,952 in 2021. Last year, British nationals accounted for nearly a third of all potential victims (31%). The largest proportion of these referrals in 2021 was for criminal exploitation involving children, representing 55% of all referrals of British nationals, with the majority exploited in criminal activities such as ‘county lines’.

“All people who are exploited in modern slavery deserve specialised support to safely recover from their experience". Liz Williams, Policy Impact Manager at the Modern Slavery PEC

The research found that despite having been in contact with people who were being exploited in modern slavery or at risk from it, authorities miss many opportunities to identify potential British victims and prevent their further exploitation. Authorities identified as most commonly missing the signs include professionals from social services, NHS, education, mental health services and the criminal justice system.

It points to contextual and societal factors that contribute to British nationals becoming vulnerable to being exploited. A lack of support to access safe housing, family support, mental health, and substance misuse increased vulnerability to exploitation.

These issues, coupled with misunderstandings about modern slavery and the fact that British nationals are commonly exploited in criminal activities, mean that professionals from statutory agencies who come into contact with them often find it difficult to spot the signs of exploitation, which results in them being treated them as criminals rather than victims.

Police, prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals find it particularly difficult to differentiate between those who commit crimes of their own volition from those who are forced to do so by their exploiters, often resulting in criminalisation, according to the report.

It also found that British citizens who get identified by authorities as potential victims of modern slavery often find it difficult to access specialised support, facing “a cycle of closed doors”.

As British nationals have recourse to public funds and access to social support, support professionals were often confused about their entitlements. This resulted in referrals to local authorities rather than being signposted to specialised services through the NRM.

The report recommends implementing a public health approach to modern slavery to prioritise prevention and early identification of British nationals, including reviewing legislative protections for survivors. At regional and local levels, the report proposes implementing community awareness and resilience programmes and developing multi-agency modern slavery partnerships.

It advises providing training to frontline professionals likely to encounter potential victims of modern slavery, specifically addressing the experience of modern slavery for British nationals.

It also recommends integrating the approach to supporting people who experienced modern slavery, including improved communication between services provided through the NRM and local authorities, as well as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in cases of criminal exploitation.

Liz Williams, Policy Impact Manager at the Modern Slavery PEC, which commissioned the study, said: “All people who are exploited in modern slavery deserve specialised support to safely recover from their experience.

“We need to build a system and policies that can identify and respond to specific challenges and vulnerabilities faced by people who experience modern slavery. That includes designing support services that understand British nationals’ specific rights and circumstances informed by evidence provided by this and other research.”

Read the full report here.

Media Enquiries

Please contact the Press Office on

Top