The number of suspected modern slavery victims left waiting over two years for a Home Office decision on their case has surged by more than half in just three months, fuelling concerns that a delay-ridden system is pushing people back into exploitation.
New data obtained through freedom of information laws show 4,991 people had been waiting for more than six months for a decision from the National referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s framework for identifying modern slavery victims – in September 2019, compared with 4,027 just three months before in June.
A total of 605 people had been waiting more than two years in the latest figures, compared with 397 in June 2019 – a rise of 52 per cent. Campaigners said the growing waiting times undermined the recovery process and were leaving victims in limbo and at risk of falling back into the hands of their abusers.
The National Referral Mechanism is designed to identify modern slavery victims and offer them a 45-day period to recover while the Home Office investigates their case. A decision on whether their claim is genuine should be made “as soon as possible” after this period. The status of their immigration and whether or not the claimant could face criminal charges are two of the potential consequences, depending on the outcome of the decision.
Graham O’Neill, policy manager at the Scottish Refugee Council, which obtained the data, said the figures exposed that the “pattern of Home Office persistent delays” in the asylum system had now been allowed to spread to the NRM. “This cannot go on,” he said. “Far from protecting people and enabling recovery, such limbo predicaments prevent that and deny the benefit of the full rights and support that the legislation and policy entitle survivors to. It can also make it more difficult for the police and prosecutors to bring exploiters to justice as survivors have not been fully recognised as such.”
Mr O’Neill argued that the NRM should be taken out of the Home Office. “There are multiple reasons now that the UK government must enable an independent agency to take control over deciding whether someone has survived trafficking and exploitation,” he said. The rise in waiting times coincides with an ongoing increase in NRM referrals, which rose by 21 per cent over the same period, from 2,808 to 2,320, which experts said demonstrated the need for more investment in the system in order to match the level of demand.
Emily Kenway, senior adviser at the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, said: “Evidently the number of referrals is higher than the system’s capacity so, while government should be proud of supporting victims it must invest to match the level of demand. Victims of trafficking have had their lives put on hold by their exploiters; the same should not continue once they’re in state support.”
Ms Kenway argued that if people were going to be left in limbo for so long they should be granted the right to work, which many in the NRM currently don’t have. “Survivors’ families often rely on them sending money home, and survivors themselves need the chance to rebuild their lives, to earn and build new connections. By preventing them from doing so and having decision-making move so slowly, we are essentially entrapping them in a new system and failing to listen to their needs,” she added.
Kate Roberts, UK and Europe manager for Anti-Slavery International, said: “Entering the NRM and the process of being identified as trafficked should facilitate the beginning of recovery from slavery or trafficking. Delays undermine this.
“Many people cannot work while in the NRM. Instead they wait, unable to move on from the abuse they suffered, not knowing if they will be believed. Survivors describe how, rather than realising their hopes of study or work, they are stuck in limbo with nothing to fill their time and the feeling that they have gone from the control of traffickers to their lives being controlled by NRM decision-makers.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK government is at the forefront of the global fight against modern slavery and is committed to stamping out this abhorrent crime. Significant progress has been made since the landmark Modern Slavery Act was passed in 2015, giving law enforcement greater powers to help stop criminals from exploiting innocent victims.
“We work to ensure that individuals referred into the National Referral Mechanism receive an initial decision within five working days. Adults identified as potential victims of modern slavery can receive accommodation, financial support, assistance in accessing mental and physical health care, including counselling, and access to legal support.”