Trafficking; The Hidden Victims

I should probably start this blog with a disclaimer – if you’re looking for all the answers to trafficking I don’t have them and they’re certainly not in this blog. What follows is a series of reflections on the UK’s current response to trafficking and in particular the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

In recent years practitioner understanding of trafficking and its links to child sexual exploitation (CSE) has undoubtedly increased, but with much more remove for improvement. The NWG has been lucky to have former team member, Mike Hand, champion the links between trafficking and CSE, as well as the use of the NRM as a tool to help tackle CSE. Trafficking is increasingly understood as an issue that doesn’t have to involve cross-border movement – with the NRM seen as an appropriate response to British children being moved between towns and cities for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

In March the National Crime Agency published their annual report regarding NRM referrals – which are the closest figures we have to an official picture of trafficking in the United Kingdom (UK). Referrals have risen dramatically since the system was introduced in 2009, with an overall increase in referrals of 35% in 2017 when compared to 2016’s figures. The number of UK children subject to an NRM referral has more than doubled in the same time to 677 in 2017 – of which 360 were in regard of sexual exploitation.

On the face of it the figures present a positive picture of increased awareness of trafficking and in particular it’s links to CSE. However, dig a little deeper and the outlook is somewhat bleaker. The first area for concern is the number of NRM referrals compared to the number of trafficking victims in the UK. Whilst the 5,145 referrals through the NRM process represents a significant increase from 1,745 referrals in 2013, that figure is the tip of the iceberg when compared to estimates regarding the true scale and nature of trafficking in the UK. In 2013 Home Office commissioned research used crime statistics to estimate there were between 10,000-13,000 victims of trafficking in the UK.

The second issue with the figures is, that whilst referral numbers have risen, the number of positive decisions has remained stagnant. Unsurprisingly given there has been no additional resources provided to the decision-making arm of the NRM, there is a significant backlog of cases awaiting a conclusive decision – 11 people are still waiting for decisions having been referred in 2013. The Home Office has no target with regards to timeframes for NRM decisions and still uses a paper system.

At the other end of the process there is a lack of clarity for agencies and professionals who are first responders – there are currently no terms of reference for first responders and in our experience many people are either unaware they could be first responders or haven’t received any training in how to complete an NRM referral.

For the three reasons described above the picture we currently have regarding trafficking in the UK is incomplete, with potentially a significant number of victims not being identified and referred to support. The NCA no longer breaks down referrals by age and so we only have figures for adults and children, rather than more refined subsets and the system currently collects no information on offenders.

A recent Public Accounts Committee report highlighted the concerns mentioned above, as well as challenging the lack of an inspection regime in regard of trafficking and the NRM process. The report states it has taken too long to learn what works in the system and questions the Government’s ability to understand trafficking and the demographics and circumstances of victims and perpetrators.

I stated at the outset I didn’t have all the answers but maybe a start would be addressing some of the recommendations from the Public Accounts Committee report. For example, reforming the NRM process to ensure it collects useful data which can be analysed, reducing the waiting time for decisions to be made and investigating the huge discrepancy in referral numbers from not only different police forces but first responder agencies across the country.

If a reformed NRM process is to form a pivotal part of the country’s response to trafficking, and specifically the trafficking of children for the purpose of sexual exploitation then the system will need resourcing appropriately to meet demand .

Phil Ashford

Response Unit Lead