The fight against human trafficking appears to no longer be a Government priority as it instead focuses on irregular migration, MPs have warned.
This approach has led to some UK national victims falling through the gaps, amid a persistent narrative that support systems for victims of human trafficking are centred around migrants, the Home Affairs Committee said.
Committee chairwoman, Labour’s Dame Diana Johnson, accused the Government of an “unnecessary and unjustified” choice to sacrifice its focus on human trafficking as part of its response to irregular migration.
She said that, despite a common narrative around the issue, the committee “found little evidence” that the system is being abused by people trying to stay in the country.
The report said it had been estimated that there are at least 100,000 victims of modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK – although the committee said the true scale is unknown as it noted the Home Office “does not hold a definitive data source on the number of victims in the UK”.
The official framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery however – known as the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – received 16,938 referrals in 2022.
The number has grown substantially since the creation of the NRM in 2009, with referrals now five times higher than the 3,263 in 2015 when the Modern Slavery Act was passed.
The report stated: “We have been very concerned throughout this inquiry that the fight against human trafficking is, in practice, no longer a priority for the UK Government, notwithstanding the Government’s claims to the contrary.”
The MPs concluded there was a “disappointing lack of commitment on the part of the Home Office for tackling human trafficking in the UK”, listing recent prioritisation of irregular migration policies over those concerning human trafficking and claims of migrants “abusing the system” as evidence of this lack of commitment.
The committee also noted a “lack of outputs from the Home Office modern slavery unit”, lack of an updated modern slavery strategy, and the 18-month delay in appointing a new Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner”.
Eleanor Lyons, the current deputy children’s commissioner for England, was appointed to the role in October and begins in the job next week.
The role had been vacant since Dame Sara Thornton finished her term in April 2022.
The committee said it is the case that thousands of UK nationals are victims of human trafficking, many of whom are children “who are at significant risk of harm”.
The MPs said they were concerned by evidence given by the National Crime Agency (NCA) which they said indicated it might be “prioritising immigration issues at the expense of investigating human trafficking and recovering victims”.
The report recommended the Government speeds up efforts to deliver a new and overhauled modern slavery strategy, publishes annual reports on human trafficking, gives comprehensive data to support its claims of abuse of the NRM and builds partnerships with the financial services industry and regulators to better identify the proceeds from trafficking crimes.
The committee also warned that there is too little deterrence for men who pay for sex, creating a market for trafficking for sexual exploitation.
It said websites advertising prostitution “significantly facilitate trafficking for sexual exploitation”, warning of the threat posed by websites advertising prostitution, “the continuing failure of their owners to implement even the most basic safeguards against pimping and trafficking, and the sheer scale of trafficking for sexual exploitation they facilitate”.
Dame Diana said: “It beggars belief that the Government has allowed pimping websites to operate and has done next to nothing to deter the minority of men who pay for sex.
“Websites are directly fuelling sex trafficking across the UK and causing unimaginable harm to victims. The Government’s indifference to this facilitation is emblematic of its overall response to human trafficking.”
The MPs said legislation should be extended to “prohibit any individual or company from enabling or profiting from the prostitution of another person, including facilitation that takes place via online, digital services, websites and the internet”.
More broadly, Dame Diana added: “The Government has chosen to sacrifice its focus on human trafficking as part of its response to irregular migration. This is unnecessary and unjustified.
“We found little evidence the system of support for trafficking victims is being abused by individuals attempting to remain in the country.
“It is vital that perception of human trafficking moves away from focusing on people crossing national borders. The reality is that this is a problem that affects thousands of UK nationals and children.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Human trafficking is a heinous crime and we have taken action to stop evil gangs from preying on innocent people.
“The landmark Illegal Migration Act has expanded our measures, so that if someone is identified as a potential victim of modern slavery or human trafficking, we will ensure they are safely returned home or to another safe country, away from those who have trafficked them.”
A National Crime Agency spokesperson said: “The NCA works with a range of partners in the UK and overseas to combat the threat from modern slavery and human trafficking.
“We continue to coordinate and prioritise regular proactive activity against modern slavery and human trafficking including through Project Aidant, which has seen 1174 arrests made and identified over 2,523 potential victims since 2017.
“We prioritise the serious and organised criminals presenting the greatest risk to the UK, and those involved in human trafficking are no exception.”