Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Responding to Human Trafficking: Challenges Faced by Frontline Practitioners in England



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Dr Ana M. Fuentes Cano. Ana is a Lecturer and the Director of the Criminology Department at the University Isabel I (Spain) and a member of the Center of Policy and Law (CLPS) at the University of Southampton. She has a background in Crime Analysis (MSc), Criminology (LL.M), and work experience supporting victims of different backgrounds across social agencies. Ana’s research interests include trafficking in persons, migration, human rights, and transnational crime.


Valentin Galochkin. Study ("Slavery"). Marble. 1965



With the aim of ensuring a better understanding of human trafficking and coherent responses to it, the UK Government established a multi-agency National Referral Mechanism (UK NRM) in 2009. The government also adopted the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. Both were heavily promoted by Theresa May, first as Home Secretary and later as the Prime Minister, who stated that “we must work collaboratively with law-enforcement agencies across the world to track and stop these pernicious gangs who operate across borders and jurisdictions”.

Essentially, these anti-trafficking policies provide guidance for relevant practitioners on how to respond to human trafficking. They determine the division of labour between frontline practitioners involved in responding to the crime and assisting its victims, and are hailed as best practice by other countries (such as Australia). UK counter-trafficking policies further seek to facilitate a common understanding of the crime and its victims across all agencies involved in responding to human trafficking. Such an approach would, in principle, also enable stronger partnerships to better identify and provide support for victims of trafficking.

During my PhD in 2017, I conducted 27 semi-structured interviews with relevant practitioners from governmental and non-governmental agencies in the UK, in order to assess their understanding of current policies and their application. Findings highlighted challenges in anti-trafficking efforts regarding identifying and supporting trafficked persons in England, due to a lack of definitional clarity and resources (such as training) set in policies and processes. In this post, I highlight the three main challenges that frontline practitioners face, namely lack of definitional clarity, lack of data sharing between practitioners and patchy training. 

Since the UK NRM was adopted, the number of potential victims of trafficking referred through this mechanism has been rising. For instance, data from the National Crime Agency (NCA) shows that the number of referrals made in 2015 was 3266, a 40% increase from 2014. Similarly, statistics from 2016 indicate that the proportion of referrals reached 3805, a 17% increment on the previous year. Despite the ongoing increase in the number of referrals through the UK NRM, a small number of individuals suspected of being victims of trafficking were, or will be, granted such status. In fact, the number of those identified as victims and thus entitled to assistance dramatically fell, with only 7% (15) being granted positive conclusive grounds by February 2020. This discrepancy seems to indicate that not all practitioners share the same understanding of human trafficking.

Lack of clarity

In order to facilitate the identification process across a wide range of practitioners, the UK NRM encompass a large number of indicators for potential victims. Most of those indicators are linked to evidence of a loss of autonomy, as individuals held in a situation of dependence are considered to be in a position of high vulnerability towards exploitation. Indicators include: the confiscation of passport or identification documents, acting as if instructed by another person or having limited knowledge of English, for example having vocabulary relating only to their exploitative situation (HM Government, 2016) .

Under the UK anti-trafficking legislation and although consent does not negate the crime, practitioners are encouraged to improve the identification of victims by prioritising the search for elements that prove victims’ lack of consent to his/her victimisation, namely, elements of force, threats and deceit with the purpose of exploitation. Hence, and according to Article 3 of the Modern Slavery Act (2015), when the person is subjected to ‘force, threats or deception’ as well as the ‘abuse of a position of vulnerability’, the victim is considered to have no other choice than to be exploited (HM Government, 2015).

However, evidence from my study indicates that victims encountered by frontline practitioners in England were commonly aware of the nature of the job but possibly not to a great extent, and certainly did not know that they would be exposed to exploitative working conditions.

And although the traffickers’ use of means of force, threats, deception or abuse of a position of vulnerability would, at any point of the process, effectively invalidate their previous consent (Elliot, 2016), this finding alters the sense of the ‘ideal victim’ given by the UK legal definition. This finding draws important lines connected to the modus operandi of traffickers and how this should shape current anti-trafficking identification protocols. Documented difficulties in recognising the lack of choice or agency amongst potential trafficked individuals in accepting exploitative working conditions may lead to them not being recognised as victims or entitled to access to support or assistance, which exposes them to further risk of victimisation.

Lack of data-sharing

International anti-trafficking policies establish that partnerships between governmental and non-governmental agencies would allow information sharing as a strategy to more efficiently identify victims of human trafficking (CETS197, 2005a; EU Directive 2011/36/eu, 2011). In the UK, the Competent Authority (Home Office agency responsible to grant the status of victim to trafficked persons) and frontline practitioners are obliged to use the same list of indicators, although this does not mean that they always agree.

However, my research shows that information concerning potential victims of trafficking identified within the NRM is heavily guarded by the government and not shared with frontline practitioners. Discussions with frontline responders suggested that a common understanding of the signs of victimization are currently hampered due to limited access to data on the decision-making process in the Home Office. For example, frontline responders would only be informed of the decision but not of the reasoning behind it, which obscures the possibility of shaping a common anti-trafficking response that would take into account the victims’ welfare.

Patchy training

While all practitioners were familiar with the term ‘National Referral Mechanism’ as the official British tool to identify potential victims of trafficking, not all knew how to deal with this mechanism of identification. Evidence built upon practitioners’ narratives indicates that inconsistencies in understanding how to utilise the UK NRM could also be seen as illustrating internal managerial decisions among agencies. Relevant practitioners are trained according to the aims of the agency and their resources which may influence the quality of the training. Compounded by the lack of a rigorous system of training provided by the government, this demonstrates that frontline responders may be deprived from reaching the sought-after standardised knowledge concerning those who have to be rescued from trafficking. This, in turn, may have an impact on how frontline practitioners identify and refer potential victims through the UK NRM.

As the number of human trafficking victims seems to continue to rise according to statistics,  the UK Government needs to acknowledge the difficulties that practitioners face in trying to implement national policies and respond accordingly. If the problem of human trafficking is to be tackled and equality in treatment of victims to be established, a growing governmental commitment to devote cooperation and sufficient resources to key agencies, and uniform terminology must be implemented.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Fuentes Cano, A. M. (2021). Responding to Human Trafficking: Challenges Faced by Frontline Practitioners in England. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/11/responding-human [date]

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