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Victims categorized under ‘unknown exploitation’ less likely to access support

  • Published on
    January 29, 2021
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  • Category:
    Human Trafficking
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Potential victims of trafficking referred to the U.K.’s system for identifying people who have experienced trafficking – the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – and categorized under ‘unknown exploitation’ are less likely to be recognized as confirmed victims of trafficking, impacting their access to statutory support.

The NRM categorizes several types of exploitation: sexual exploitation, labor exploitation, domestic servitude, organ harvesting and criminal exploitation.

But a potential victim of trafficking may also be referred to the NRM and categorized under ‘unknown exploitation’ if the exploitation hasn’t yet occurred, a seemingly progressive safeguard built into the system.

However, Patrick Burland writes in openDemocracy that in fact, 47% of reasonable grounds (RG) decisions – the decision from the relevant authority that a person is potentially a victim of trafficking – for men and 26% of RG decisions for women under ‘unknown exploitation’ were negative compared to 18% of RGs for men categorized as ‘labor exploitation’ and 6% for women categorized as ‘sexual exploitation.’

Patrick Burland writes:

One of the main indicators used by the NRM to identify victims of trafficking is exploitation, which is coded by type, for example, ‘sexual exploitation’. In this piece I am chiefly interested in cases where the type of exploitation is coded as ‘unknown’, or as ‘unknown exploitation’. These cases comprised 10% of the 35,077 referrals to the NRM between 1 January 2012 and 31 December 2019, which makes this the third most common recorded type of exploitation found in official statistics after ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘labour exploitation’. During the first nine months of 2020 around 13% of all NRM referrals were recorded as ‘not recorded or unknown’.

There has been little acknowledgement of the scale of these referrals or attempts to explain them.


To put that differently, the available information suggests that significant differences exist in the proportion of positive reasonable grounds (RG) decisions between ‘unknown exploitation’ and other categories.

These differences matter because a positive decision gives potential victims access to government-funded specialist support and assistance. The RG decision should be made within five working days of a referral, and it only requires that the decision maker “suspects but cannot prove this person is a potential victim of human trafficking”. The statutory guidance on the Modern Slavery Act notes that this is a “relatively low threshold, lower than the criminal standard of proof”. It is only the conclusive grounds (CG) decision which is made on the “balance of probabilities”.

Under the Palermo Protocol’s definition of trafficking, the ‘act’ (“recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons”) and the ‘means’ (“by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception”) are necessary to determine whether trafficking has occurred – but “no exploitation actually has to occur” for a case to meet the definition.

Yet, the absence of exploitation, and society’s understanding of what a person deserving of support looks like, negatively impacts an individual’s chances of being formally recognized through the NRM as having experienced trafficking.

Professor of International Politics at Kings College London, Claudia Aradau, describes the “baptism of brutality” perpetuated by narratives of human trafficking and modern slavery that center a person’s suffering to communicate their need for support.

Conversely, if a person is viewed as unable to prove their suffering then they are not deemed in need of assistance to overcome trafficking.

Burland argues:

Assessors must understand that exploitation is not the only source of harm in cases of trafficking. Physical or psychological harm may result through the ‘act’ and ‘means’, such as the use or threat of violence as a means of coercion, or from a person having trusted someone who lied and deceived with the sole intention of exploiting them.

While the U.K.’s NRM system has the potential to identify and support all potential victims of trafficking, the ‘unknow exploitation’ category is currently impeding potential victims from accessing much-needed specialist support.

Join the campaign calling on the U.K. government to provide all victims of modern slavery with guaranteed statutory support.


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