For years the U.K. was known as a country where people were trafficked to from abroad. Yet new statistics from the U.K. government and local charities show that an increasing number of marginalized British nationals are being trafficked domestically.
In other words, the U.K. has become an “origin country” for trafficking.
The British government has made several promises to tackle modern slavery, yet domestic trafficking is on the rise. One explanation? The drastic government cutbacks to youth and family services of almost £1 billion over the past ten years, as well as authorities slashing 4,500 jobs in youth work and shutting down more than 760 youth centers.
Without these support systems for youth, the most marginalized Britons can become prime targets for traffickers.
British nationals are now more likely to be lured against their will than any other nationality in the UK, according to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s official system recording potential victims of modern slavery. Government data shows that some 3,560 British men and women (34% of the total) were referred to the NRM in 2020, with Albanian (1,638) and Vietnamese (653) nationals in second and third place, respectively.
The pandemic has exacerbated the situation: In November 2020, the National Youth Agency, an independent charity in England and Wales, reported that over one million young people went off the radar when youth services closed or moved online. With their incomes slashed, many charities have laid off part-time employees, who make up a significant segment of the sector. These redundancies have left hundreds of young people without mentorship or consistent support.
There is a heightened risk that young women who don’t have access to youth services will be sexually exploited not just by gangs, said Adam Peel, a research and learning manager at the National Youth Agency. “There have been instances where trafficking leaves them homeless and they are reliant upon ‘survival sex,’ forming relationships in exchange for accommodation.”
In 2020, the UK became the first country in the world to publish a modern slavery statement, aiming to explain how the government is tackling the issue in its own supply chains. But noticeably absent was any discussion of domestic trafficking or people who are trafficked for sexual exploitation.
When contacted by VICE for a response, the Home Office said: “Modern slavery statements are about measures taken to prevent labour exploitation in supply chains specifically, so they wouldn’t cover other forms of exploitation such as forced prostitution.”
British women face additional hurdles in that they are seen as less likely to need emergency support services, or they get misclassified by the police as survivors of rape or domestic abuse as opposed to trafficking.
In these cases, the National Referral Mechanism, the UK’s official system for recording potential victims of modern slavery, is never even alerted.