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England and Wales is taking a robust approach to tackle human trafficking.  It introduced the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 to consolidate provisions relating to human trafficking, forced labor, and sexual exploitation, and significantly increased the penalties for these offenses, as well as providing police with a way to seize the proceeds of these crimes and provide reparations to the victims.  A national referral mechanism is in place to put potential victims in contact with one of two agencies that are specialized in dealing with these types of crime.  There are statutory guidelines in place to help train the police and other first responders who are the victims’ first point of contact with authorities.  These guidelines train these first responders to see the indicators of modern slavery and take appropriate action to carefully interview such victims and meet their needs.

I.  Introduction

Human trafficking increasingly has become a priority on the government agenda in England and Wales.  England is considered to be a destination country, with the majority of trafficking victims originating from Eastern Europe, the Baltic States, the Balkans, and the Far East.[1]  The Home Office has acknowledged that there is no reliable total available of the number of adults and children brought into the UK for the purposes of exploitation.  It is estimated that 2014 saw an overall increase of 21% in human trafficking victims, and an increase of over 50% for British national victims of human trafficking,[2] although the rise could be attributed to an increased detection of the victims of this crime rather than an increase in incidences.  

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II.  Laws

The UK adopted the term “modern slavery” in 2013 to cover offenses that were previously described as human trafficking, forced labor, slavery, sexual exploitation, and domestic servitude.[3]  The Modern Slavery Act entered into force on July 31, 2015, and served to consolidate previous legislation, creating a single offense of human trafficking that covers both sexual and nonsexual exploitation.  It further simplified previous legislation and increased the maximum sentence to life imprisonment on a number of offenses.  The Act enables the courts to issue “prevention and risk orders,” which restrict the activity of the individuals named in the order if they present a risk to others. [4]   

The Modern Slavery Act introduced a number of provisions to help victims of modern slavery.  It provides statutory defenses to victims of modern slavery who are forced to commit crimes as a direct consequence of their slavery and enables the court to compensate victims if their assets have been confiscated from the perpetrators through reparation orders.[5]  The Act requires the Secretary of State to issue statutory guidance to help frontline workers identify and support victims of modern slavery.[6] 

The Modern Slavery Act provides that trafficking is facilitating or arranging the travel of another person with a view to that person being exploited.[7]  Any consent to travel from the victim is irrelevant in this offense.[8]  The offense is extraterritorial, so it applies to UK nationals wherever the offense is committed.[9]  Exploitation covers a number of areas including slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labor, sexual exploitation, moving a person for the purposes of organ removal or the sale of human tissue, or any type of behavior that would provide an advantage to the trafficker.[10]  The maximum penalty for this offense is up to life imprisonment for a conviction on indictment.[11]  Any assets generated during the course of modern slavery may be confiscated after conviction.[12]  In addition to confiscating the proceeds of crime, the Modern Slavery Act provides the court with the ability to provide reparations to the victim of the crime upon the conviction of the defendant.  This order allows the court to take into account the exploitation and degradation the victim has suffered.[13]

To further help protect victims of modern slavery, the Act provides for a system of prevention orders, which enables the court to prohibit an individual subject to an order from doing certain activities.  These orders can be made against people who are involved in slavery or trafficking, regardless of whether they have been convicted of an offense.[14]  The prohibitions in these orders may vary and are in accordance with the wishes of the court, but may include such things as a prohibition on foreign travel and restrictions on individuals visiting certain businesses or places.  The Modern Slavery Act further empowers magistrate’s courts to issue slavery and trafficking risk orders.[15]  These orders are issued upon application from a chief officer of police, an immigration officer, or the Director General of the National Crime Agency (NCA).  These orders are issued in cases where the court is satisfied there is a risk that the defendant may commit a slavery or human trafficking offense and that the order is necessary to protect individuals from harm.[16]  The prohibitions contained in this order are similar to those contained in preventive orders, and the magistrate’s courts have discretion in determining what prohibitions are necessary.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 established an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, who is responsible for encouraging good practices to prevent, detect, investigate, and prosecute slavery and human trafficking offenses and for identifying victims of these offenses.  The Commissioner has a wide vary of activities that he or she may undertake to support this role, including making recommendations to public authorities about the exercise of his or her functions; financially supporting research into modern slavery; providing information, education, or training; and issuing reports on matters of modern slavery to the Secretary of State.[17] 

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III.  Roles and Responsibilities of Government Agencies and the National Referral Mechanism

A number of agencies tasked with tackling modern-day slavery are organized under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).  This mechanism was introduced in 2009 to meet the UK’s obligation under the Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings.  It aims to locate and identify potential victims of trafficking and ensure they receive appropriate support.[18]  To be referred to the NRM, the potential victim must be referred to one of two competent authorities by one of a number of agencies or organizations.  The two competent authorities are the UK Human Trafficking Center, which handles referrals from the police, local authorities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the Home Office’s Immigration and Visas, which handles referrals that include part of the immigration process.  These authorities, known as first responders, must make the initial referral to the two competent authorities and include a mixture of government agencies and NGOs.  The statutory first responder agencies include the following:

  • The forty-three police forces of England and Wales
  • British Transport Police
  • Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)
  • Police Scotland
  • Border Force
  • HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC)
  • National Crime Agency (NCA)
  • Home Office UK Visas and Immigration Directorate (UKVI)
  • Home Office Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (HO ICE)
  • Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA)
  • Local Authorities
  • National Health Service (NHS) (England, Scotland and Wales) and local health boards
  • Health and Social Care Trusts (Northern Ireland)[19]

Additional bodies that may frequently find themselves in the role of first responders include charities such as the Salvation Army, the Poppy Project, Migrant Help, Kalayaan, Barnardos, Unseen, TARA Project (Scotland), National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Black Association of Women Step Out (BAWSO), New Pathways, and the Refugee Council.[20] 

To refer a case to the competent authority, the first responder must complete a form that provides the reasons the responder thinks the person is a potential victim of human trafficking.  Referral to the competent authority is voluntary for adults, who must provide permission by signing the referral form.  The consent of potential child victims is not required for referral.  The completed form initially goes to the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which determines which competent authority will handle the case.[21]  Once the referral is made to one of the competent authorities, it will be assessed and a decision will be made as to whether the individual is a victim of modern slavery. 

The competent authority then has a two-stage process to determine whether or not someone is a victim of modern slavery.  The competent authority must assess, within five working days, whether there are reasonable grounds, based upon statements from the victim and information from the first responder or other sources, to believe that the individual is a potential victim of human trafficking or modern slavery.  The NCA has stated that “[t]he threshold at Reasonable Grounds stage for the trained decision makers is; ‘from the information available so far I believe but cannot prove’ that the individual is a potential victim of trafficking or modern slavery.”[22]  If  such reasonable grounds are found, the potential victim may, if appropriate, be provided with accommodation and subsistence at a safe house at the government’s expense.  The potential victim will then receive a period of forty-five calendar days of rest and reflection to determine his or her next course of action.  During this time frame the competent authority works to gather further information from the first responder that made the initial referral, as well as other agencies, to make a conclusive determination as to whether the individual is a victim of human trafficking or modern-day slavery.   The decision maker bases his or her decision on the balance of probabilities—it must be more likely than not that the individual is a victim of human trafficking or modern slavery.[23]  If the individual is an immigrant, he or she may be granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK for one year, which can be extended, to allow him/her to cooperate in any police investigation and/or legal action.[24]  Where the victim’s case has no involvement in the criminal justice process the Home Office may still provide a grant of discretionary leave to remain[25] if the individual is conclusively recognized as a victim of human trafficking.[26]  If the victim is from outside the European Economic Area he or she is entitled to receive financial assistance and help to return home through a program run by the Home Office known as the Assisted Voluntary Return of Irregular Migrants.  Nationals from European Economic Area states are put in contact with their embassy and NGOs who may be able to assist them.[27]  If the individual is found not to be a victim of trafficking or modern slavery then the circumstances of the case need to be taken into account.  Depending upon these circumstances the individual may be referred to law enforcement or offered support to voluntarily return to his/her country of origin if the circumstances do not provide the individual with a right to live in the UK.[28] 

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IV.  Training for Law Enforcement

Training for the police starts at the College of Policing.  This College has produced a number of Authorized Professional Practice materials, one of which covers modern slavery.  The Authorized Professional Practice materials note that when police come into contact with potential victims of modern slavery, the officers must immediately take steps to ensure the safety of the potential victim.  If the officer who makes initial contact with either the potential victim, a third party, or a witness does not have the requisite knowledge or expertize to “sensitively handle vulnerable and traumatized individuals,”[29] he or she must refer the case to his/her line manager or duty officer, who is then responsible for arranging, if necessary, a referral into the NRM.[30]

When a trained first responder is made aware of a potential victim, arrangements should be made for specialist interviewers at the earliest stage possible to conduct the interview in accordance with guidance from the Ministry of Justice on how to obtain the best evidence.[31]  The interviewer should take account of indicators of exploitation and use the information obtained in the interview to complete the national referral form to refer the potential victim into the NRM.[32]  The police are made aware that it can take time for a potential victim to disclose information relating to the case.  In situations where such disclosure is not imminent the potential victim can be placed in local temporary accommodation, which should be secure, and the potential victim should be “under strict instructions not to attempt communication with their exploiter(s) or other victims.  The placement should be kept confidential.”[33] 

For potential victims that are under the age of eighteen years of age, a child advocate or other selected representative should be present during any interview.  It may not be appropriate to interview children immediately following their discovery and they should be placed in secure accommodation, the location of which should be kept confidential prior to any interview.[34]  During the child’s time in accommodation, all steps should be taken to ensure that they do not go missing and are not re-exploited.[35]  In cases where there is uncertainty over the age of a potential victim, they should be presumed to be a child.[36] 

Police that interview children are trained to understand that child victims of modern slavery are the most vulnerable, the easiest to control, and the least likely to admit or realize their situation.  Child victims may also be wary of adults, particularly the police, and interviews must be conducted in a child-friendly environment.  If a child goes missing before or after his/her interview, the case is treated as a missing person case.[37]

Police may receive specialist training to recognize and help victims of modern slavery through additional programs.  Charities who have either received funding from the Home Office or independently have created programs to provide further training to frontline professionals, including nurses, midwives, police officers, and prison staff, to raise awareness and understanding of trafficking and provide them with knowledge of how to help potential victims.[38]  

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V.  Guidance for Frontline Workers

There are a number of guidelines in place to assist all frontline workers, not just the police, who come into contact with potential victims of modern slavery.  The purpose of the guidance is to give such staff information so they understand all the aspects involved in modern slavery, to help them identify and assist potential victims.  The guidance provides detailed information on how frontline workers should identify and handle potential victims.  There are certain provisions in the guidance that have been redacted as being sensitive information.[39]  The guidance notes that victims of modern slavery are most frequently identified during the border and immigration process, and that individuals working in these areas must complete e-learning training on modern slavery.[40]

The difficultly in identifying victims of modern slavery are noted, and the guidance emphasizes that victims are extremely vulnerable and frequently mistrust individuals in positions of authority.[41]  The first guidance for frontline practitioners is to work to put the potential victim at ease as far as possible, being careful to watch the potential victim’s verbal and body language.  Guidance notes that victims of human trafficking may frequently appear unwilling to cooperate and feel not only fear of their trafficker but also dependence upon the trafficker.[42] 

Frontline responders are required to consider all health concerns, both psychological and physical, and ensure that care for these are provided in a timely manner.  To help build rapport and the victim’s confidence with the frontline responder, changes in personnel should be avoided.  The responder should research the victim’s cultural background, covering gender, religion, and ethnicity, and, if an interpreter is required, ensure that the interpreter, selected from the national register of interpreters, speaks the same dialect as the victim.  The victim should be helped to understand the process.[43]

Once a potential victim of modern slavery has been identified, the frontline worker must take the potential victim to a secure environment away from any potential trafficker or other potential victims.  During this time, the frontline worker informs the potential victim of their right to assistance, protection, and emotional and practical help.[44]  The interview of the victim is an important stage in the process, as evidence from this will be used to determine whether the individual is a potential victim of human trafficking and will be provided on the form to the NRM.  All interviews must be conducted to achieve the best evidence.  To meet this standard the victim’s health and fitness for the interview should first be considered.  If it is determined that the victim’s health and fitness is sufficient to allow for the interview, the roles of those involved and the process of the interview should be clearly explained to the victim so that he or she understands it.  The pace of the interview should be determined by the victim’s state of mind.  Neutral space should be used for the interview and interviewers should not be in uniform.  In cases of female victims, both female interviewers and interpreters should be utilized.[45]  

Guidance provides the examples of the Border Force processing a passenger during an asylum interview or during a visit from Immigration Enforcement to a premises.[46]  Frontline staff are trained to recognize indicators to assist them in identifying whether a person is a potential victim of human trafficking.  There are many indicators that a person may be a potential victim.  Some of these indicators are that the potential victim may be reluctant to come forward with information, or even recognize that they are a victim of modern slavery.  The information that they provide may contain obvious errors, or may be unrealistic, as the victim’s trafficker may have taught them information to provide to authorities if questioned.[47]  If the suspected trafficker is present, frontline staff must be aware of any nonverbal communication and body language between the victim and trafficker.[48]  Frontline staff should be aware that the victim will likely have been affected by trauma, and could be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and as a result may display hostility, aggression, or difficulty recalling information or concentrating.   Children in particular may find it difficult to trust authorities as the traffickers may have told them that the authorities should not be trusted, or may have faced negative experiences in their home country with corrupt officials.[49]  There may also be physical indicators of human trafficking.  These physical indicators are extensive and include injuries that may have occurred as a result of assault or measures to control the victim, or neurological symptoms.  The presence of certain tattoos or marks may also signify that an individual is a potential victim of human trafficking.[50]  Frontline workers are also trained to look for psychological indicators of modern slavery.  These indicators include expressions of fear and anxiety, depression, isolation, substance abuse, self-harm and an attitude of self-blame, and shame, as well as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which as noted above, can cause hostility and aggression.[51]

Frontline workers are trained to look for situational and environmental signs that indicate a person is a potential victim of modern slavery.  The UK uses a report produced by the International Labor Organization that lists the following specific signs of modern slavery:

  • distrust of authorities
  • acting as if instructed by another
  • lack of knowledge about the area they live in the UK
  • fear of saying what their immigration status is
  • fearful and emotional about their family or dependents
  • limited English, for example only having vocabulary relating to their exploitative situation
  • passport or travel document has been confiscated
  • someone has taken advantage of their illegal status in the UK[52]

Frontline workers are trained to understand that victims of human trafficking may be reluctant to identify themselves as such and unwilling to disclose details of their experience for many reasons including fear of reprisal from the trafficker against themselves or their families, punishment from the authorities, deportation, juju or witchcraft rituals, or discrimination from their community and families, or because they are concerned they will be considered complicit in their situation.[53]  There are many other factors that cause victims of human trafficking to conceal the fact—most are caused by fear of the traffickers or lack of information about their real situation and the laws that can help to protect and support them.  Given all these factors, frontline workers are trained to recognize objective signs and indicators to help them identify potential victims.

Once a victim has been identified as a potential victim of modern slavery, emergency medical treatment should be provided to the potential victim if appropriate.[54]  Once any medical needs have been attended to, potential victims of human trafficking should be referred to the Competent Authority of the NRM to investigate the case further.[55]  While frontline staff are trained to identify indicators of modern slavery, there is no minimum threshold to meet to refer a case to the NRM.[56]  The frontline workers must include all indicators of modern slavery that he or she has noted and all the circumstances in which the person was identified on the referral form.[57]  After the referral, the frontline worker must then provide accommodation for the potential victim.[58]

Specific guidance is provided for frontline workers that come into contact with child victims.  This guidance notes that these workers require specific knowledge and understanding about child victims, as the characteristics and issues they face are different from those of adult victims.  Frontline responders are required to deal with children as a priority because of their vulnerability.  Frontline responders are trained to identify potential child victims of trafficking.  Indicators of this include children who arrive in the UK accompanied by adults who are not related to them, or in circumstances that raise child-protection concerns.  These circumstances include those where there is no parental permission for the child to travel to the UK or stay with the adult, no evidence of a preexisting relationship with the adult, or evidence of unsatisfactory accommodation in the UK.[59]  

Responders are trained to address the child with special care to avoid causing alarm or concern and take into account the developmental stage the child is at and any grooming from the perpetrator.[60]  If the potential victim is a child, frontline staff should immediately refer the child to the local authority’s children’s services, which is the primary service responsible for safeguarding and responding to the needs of child victims of modern slavery.[61]  As with adult victims, children may be inconsistent with their stories and experiences, and frontline staff are trained to recognize this.  As it is not possible for a child to give informed consent, any child who is transported or transferred for the purpose of exploitation is considered to be a potential victim of modern slavery.[62] 

While the government is working to expand its program to help prevent and prosecute incidents of modern slavery, some charities that work in this area consider that the actions are not enough, that there is a lack of support for victims, and that the process victims must go through as agencies seek to determine if they are a victim sometimes amounts to “a slow dehumanization.”[63]

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Prepared by Clare Feikert-Ahalt
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
February 2016

[1] UK Human Trafficking Centre, National Crime Agency, (last visited Feb. 10, 2016), archived at

[2] National Crime Agency, NCA Strategic Assessment The Nature and Scale of Human Trafficking in 2014 (Sept. 12, 2015),, archived at  This report notes that the statistics “should be considered an indication of the nature and scale of human trafficking.  This is because trafficking and slavery are hidden crimes, and statistics and analysis can only be provided on what is already known, and cannot be exhaustive.”  Id. para. 3.  See also Press Association, Number of British Trafficking Victims More Than Doubles, Guardian (London) (Dec. 15, 2015),, archived at

[3] National Crime Agency, supra note 2, ¶ 6.

[4] Modern Slavery Act 2015, c. 30,, archived at; National Crime Agency, supra note 2, ¶ 8.

[5] Modern Slavery Act 2015, c. 30, § 45.

[6] Id. § 49.

[7] Id. § 2.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. § 3.

[11] Id. § 5.

[12] Id. § 7.

[13] Id. § 8.

[14] Id. §§ 13–22.

[15] Id. § 23.

[16] Id. §§ 25–29.

[17] Id. pt. 4.

[19] Modern Slavery Act 2015, c. 30, sched. 3.

[20] For a more complete list, see Major Investigation and Public Protection: List of Anti-Slavery Charities and Non-Governmental Organisations, College of Policing, (last visited Feb. 14, 2016), archived at    

[21] National Referral Mechanism, National Crime Agency, supra note 18. 

[22] Id

[23] Id

[24] Id

[25] Id.

[27] National Referral Mechanism, National Crime Agency, supra note 18. 

[28] Id.

[29] Major Investigation and Public Protection: First Response and the National Referral Mechanism, College of Policing, (last visited Feb. 14, 2016), archived at

[30] Id.

[31] Ministry of Justice, Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings (Mar. 2011), publications/docs/best_evidence_in_criminal_proceedings.pdf, archived at  

[32] Major Investigation and Public Protection: Risk and Identification, College of Policing, (last visited Feb. 10, 2015), archived at

[33] Major Investigation and Public Protection: First Response and the National Referral Mechanism, College of Policing, supra note 29.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Modern Slavery Act 2015, c. 30, § 51.

[37] Major Investigation and Public Protection: First Response and the National Referral Mechanism, College of Policing, supra note 29.

[38] Eaves To Deliver Human Trafficking Training To Frontline Professionals, Eaves, http://www.eavesforwomen. (last visited Feb. 10, 2016), archived at  

[39] Home Office, Victims of Modern Slavery – Frontline Staff Guidance, supra note 26, at 42.

[40] Id. at 14.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] Home Office, Victims of Modern Slavery – Frontline Staff Guidance, supra note 26, at 13.

[45] National Crime Agency, Best Practice Guide, supra note 41.

[46] Home Office, Victims of Modern Slavery – Frontline Staff Guidance, supra note 26, at 12.

[47] Id. ¶ 7.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] Id. ¶ 7.1.

[51] Id. ¶ 7.3.

[52] Id. ¶ 7.4.

[53] Id. ¶ 8.1.

[54] Id. ¶ 5.

[55] Id. ¶ 3.

[56] Id.
Id. ¶ 13.2.4.

[57] Id.

[58] Id. ¶ 3.

[59] Id. ¶ 11.2.

[60 Id. ¶ 11.10.

[61] Id. ¶ 11.1.

[62] Id. ¶ 11.3.

[63] Irina Do Carmo, Trafficking Victims Often Treated as Illegal Immigrants First, Human Beings Last, Guardian (London) (July 30, 2015),, archived at

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Last Updated: 12/30/2020