Covid-19: The impact on human trafficking

There are concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic could make people more vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers and could make victims less able to access help. This issue is the subject of an oral question to be asked in the House of Lords on 16 July 2020:

The Lord Bishop of Bristol to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human trafficking in the United Kingdom.

This In Focus article looks at how much is currently known about the relationship between coronavirus and human trafficking, and what actions the Government has taken so far to provide support during the pandemic.

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a specific offence under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The Act also outlaws slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour. Home Office guidance on the Act explains that “the essence of human trafficking is that the victim is coerced or deceived into a situation where they are exploited”. Forms of exploitation include sexual exploitation, forced labour or domestic servitude, slavery, financial exploitation or the removal of organs. Child human trafficking does not need to involve any element of coercion or deception.

The Home Office guidance explains that trafficking is a process comprising a number of interrelated actions. Once initial control is secured, victims are generally moved to a place where there is a market for their services, often where they lack language skills and other basic knowledge that would enable them to seek help. These actions can take place within one country or across international borders.

The Human Trafficking Foundation explains that smuggling and trafficking are not identical. In smuggling cases, asylum seekers and migrants pay people to help them enter the country. Smugglers provide an illegal service rather than treating a person as a commodity. However, trafficking victims may start out believing they are being smuggled but end up in a potentially exploitative situation where they are forced to work to pay off their ‘debts’.

What impact might Covid-19 have on human trafficking?

Charities, law enforcement agencies and other bodies are concerned that the Covid-19 pandemic could make people more vulnerable to exploitation and could make victims of human trafficking less able to access help.

In a preliminary assessment of the impact of the pandemic on human trafficking published in May, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded that measures around the world such as lockdowns and travel restrictions might drive crime further underground and cause traffickers to adjust their business models. It was concerned that at the same time, the pandemic would impact capacity to provide essential services to the victims of trafficking. UNODC also argued that the coronavirus outbreak had “exacerbated and brought to the forefront the systemic and deeply entrenched economic and societal inequalities that are among the root causes of human trafficking”.

Similarly, Interpol reported in June that smugglers and traffickers were finding ways to get around measures intended to prevent the spread of the disease. It also concluded that the economic consequences of the pandemic could impact the incentives and opportunities for criminals to profit from illegal migration. It said that the novel coronavirus “has only pushed human trafficking deeper into the dark and its victims further from possible detection and assistance”.

The British Institute of International and Comparative Law is undertaking a research project, funded by the US Department of State, into the impacts of Covid-19 on efforts to combat human trafficking around the world. Its early findings are that not only will Covid-19 exacerbate vulnerability to human trafficking, but at the same time financial and other resources allocated to anti-trafficking efforts are likely to decrease.

Sara Thornton, the UK’s Anti-Slavery Commissioner, warned in May that as lockdown measures ease, traffickers could seek to profit from industries looking to recruit low-paid workers, such as the hospitality industry. She was also concerned about the whereabouts and wellbeing of people who had been trafficked to the UK to work in informal sectors such as nail bars and car washes. She feared they could be pushed into “more perilous, insecure and risky work” as their ‘debts’ to their traffickers continued to mount and they were unable to work during lockdown.

The Salvation Army operates the Government’s victim care contract for victims of modern slavery. It reported in early July that after an initial lull in the immediate aftermath of lockdown, it had started receiving calls again to its modern slavery referral helpline.

Tracking the scale of the issue in the UK

It may be too early for government data to reflect any impact the pandemic has had on human trafficking in the UK, and in any case measuring the scale of trafficking is challenging. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published an article on modern slavery in the UK in March 2020, in which it noted that the crime’s hidden nature makes it difficult to produce an accurate measure. Currently there is no definitive source of data. Instead, the ONS article brought together a range of available data sources on known victims and cases to provide a better understanding of the extent and nature of this crime. For example, it reported there were 5,144 modern slavery offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in the year ending March 2019, an increase of 51% from the previous year. The number of potential victims referred through the UK national referral mechanism (NRM) increased by 36% to 6,985 in the year ending December 2018.

Most of the figures in the article pre-date the coronavirus pandemic. However, more recent figures were published in June 2020, showing the number of referrals to the national referral mechanism from 1 January 2020 to 31 March 2020. During this period, 2,871 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the NRM across the UK; this was a 14% decrease from the previous quarter, but a 33% increase from the same quarter in 2019.

The Government said in October 2019 that the most robust estimate to date of the scale of modern slavery in the UK was produced by the Home Office in 2014. This suggested there were between 10,000 and 13,000 potential victims of modern slavery in 2013.

Government support to victims of human trafficking

Adults who are potential victims of modern slavery can be referred for support through the national referral mechanism, with their consent. All potential victims under 18 must be referred to the NRM. Under the NRM, adults have access to specialist tailored support services for at least 45 days while their case is considered. Support may include:

  • Access to legal aid for immigration advice
  • Access to short-term government-funded support through the victim care contract (accommodation, material assistance, translation and interpretation services, counselling, advice)
  • Outreach support if already in local authority accommodation or asylum accommodation
  • Assistance to return to their home country if not a UK national

Support for children is provided through local authorities and independent child trafficking guardians.

The Government has acknowledged that victims of modern slavery may be “especially isolated and hidden from view during the coronavirus outbreak”. It said it recognised that “there are greater vulnerabilities for potential victims during Covid-19, as social distancing means there is a risk that they are not identified by first responders and may find it harder to access support”. The Home Office published guidance on support for the victims of modern slavery on the coronavirus pages of the UK Government website. The Government also set out steps it has taken to provide support to the victims of modern slavery during the pandemic:

We announced on 6 April 2020, that all individuals in accommodation provided by the government-funded specialist modern slavery victim care contract, will not be required to move on from their accommodation for the next three months.

We have also secured £1.73 million of the funding for charities, announced by the Chancellor last month, to provide emergency support to victims of modern slavery who have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. This funding will assist individuals supported through the victim care contract and will ensure victims are able to stay in government-funded safe accommodation, access financial assistance, access support services remotely, and make sure we manage additional demand on services during this period.

Individuals provided with accommodation under the victim care contract are usually able to access accommodation for at least 45 days and would then be assisted to move on. The Government announced on 7 July 2020 that it is extending the temporary policy change to the ‘move on’ period for another month, allowing people to stay in their accommodation until 6 August 2020, although they can move on earlier if they wish.

The Government held an online summit on ‘hidden harms’, including modern slavery, in May. The Home Office said that the summit had brought key decision makers together to help agree an approach for tackling these crimes as the easing of lockdown measures began.

Charities have reported their concerns that some victims of modern slavery, particularly those who are receiving outreach support, have had their financial support cut during lockdown. 

The Helen Bamber Foundation, which works with survivors of modern slavery, has called on the Government to take further actions to support them during the pandemic, such as providing survivors with greater certainty about their immigration status, refraining from issuing negative decisions on NRM referrals or asylum applications while the public health crisis is ongoing and increasing financial support to ensure that survivors have internet access.

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Image by Danielle Blumenthal at Wikimedia.