Anti-Slavery Commissioner publishes her first annual report

29 Sep 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 29 Sep 2020

Photo by Tim Tebow Foundation on Unsplash
Photo by Tim Tebow Foundation on Unsplash

Northern Ireland’s recent efforts to tackle modern slavery deserve credit – but there is still a long way to go.


The UK’s new Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner published her first annual report this month.

The paper has some praise for Northern Ireland’s efforts in tackling modern slavery - however the central theme is that there is room for improvement everywhere in the UK.

Slavery might seem like a problem from the past, but it is not. It persists today in many forms but is, by its nature, largely a hidden issue.

Specific cases with names and faces fall under the public glare infrequently. Most of the news about modern slavery is statistical.

One specific example that did receive significant coverage – and has links to Northern Ireland – concerns the deaths of 39 people found dead in a lorry in Grays, Essex. Men from Craigvon and Newry were amongst those charged in relation to the deaths.

The central framework for tackling slavery in the UK is the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) which is designed to identify potential victims of human trafficking, provide them with appropriate support, and possibly lead to criminal investigations.

Northern Ireland consistently sees a low number of referrals compared with other parts of the UK.

The latest quarterly NRM figures – published September 17 – state there were a total of 2,209 referrals of potential victims to the NRM in the second quarter of this year.

Per the figures: “As in previous quarters, most (91%; 2,011) of the NRM referrals were sent to police forces in England; 3% (77) were sent to Police Scotland, 5% (101) were sent to Welsh police forces and 1% (18) to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.”

Those numbers might seem large. And, in a general sense, they are. Thousands of possible victims of modern slavery were identified in the UK in April, May and June.

However, according to the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s strategic plan for 2019-21, an estimated 136,000 people in the UK could be living in modern slavery. This figure is the subject of much debate and, when it comes to slavery, its hidden nature means these estimates are very difficult.

Nevertheless, there is merit behind the method that arrives at this figure. And it is a figure that says one in every 500 people in the UK is subject to some form of slavery.


Dame Sara Thornton, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, has been in post since May 2019. Currently she is trying to improve how the UK takes on modern slavery in four priority areas:

  1. Improving victim care and support
  2. Supporting law enforcement and prosecutions
  3. Focusing on prevention
  4. Getting value from innovation and research

The annual report looks at progress in each area.

Encouraging better identification of potential cases and (parallel to this) referrals is an important part of improving victim care and support.

The desire to vastly increase the number (and quality) of referrals is itself an acknowledgement of the degree to which slavery occurs out of sight of society.

The commissioner welcomed a 51% increase in total referrals in 2019-20 when compared with 2018-29 (up to a total of 11,342 over the year).

In her report, she notes: “With a growing number of British nationals being referred into the NRM, it is clear that we are seeing a changing cohort of victims, including children and adults with complex support needs…

“During my visits to Scotland and Northern Ireland, I have spoken with officials to understand why fewer victims are being referred there than in England and Wales. I am told that child criminal exploitation (CCE) is not yet a significant issue in these regions and this is likely to be a contributing factor.”

Clearly long-term support for victims – going well past any initial intervention and into rebuilding lives - is a crucial part of dealing with modern slavery. This is one area where NI is praised by the commissioner is in education with “many survivors of modern slavery enrolled on college courses.”

Law enforcement

Supporting legal efforts to curtail slavery is obviously important. The commissioner says: “If offenders think that there is a very low risk of prosecution, then they are not deterred from committing what is essentially an economic crime –estimated to be worth $150bn a year by the International Labour Organization”

However, criminal proceedings led by police are not the tool that can be used to put pressure on slavers.

Other parts of the UK are able to implement Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Orders (STPOs) and Slavery and Trafficking Risk Orders (STROs), which are civil injunctions that can place restrictions on individuals deemed to at risk of committing slavery or trafficking offences.

Risk orders are unavailable in Northern Ireland, and the commissioner’s report says she lobbied Justice Minister Naomi Long about this in February.

Ms Long responded by praising the commissioner’s report and saying that risk orders in NI will be reconsidered.

“While I am aware of some concerns expressed during the consultation on the Modern Slavery legislation in relation to these orders, as evidence emerges of their use in England, Wales and Scotland, I want to consider this again and have asked officials to begin scoping work in this regard.”

Prevention, and innovation

The commissioner says that the private sector – and the financial sector, in particular – has a special role in play in tackling slavery.

Again, there are many forms of exploitation but they tend to be economic crimes and, while some – like forced sexual labour - are not necessarily directly connected to the wider economy, some very much are.

“The sectors at highest risk are thought to be those that employ large numbers of low or semi-skilled workers, particularly those relying on a substantial migrant workforce such as agriculture, construction or hospitality, or those dominated by informal businesses such as hand car washes or nail bars.

“In reality, any business is at risk of unwittingly using exploited labour, domestically or internationally, particularly if it has long and complex supply chains.”

The final priority area, getting value from research and innovation, is also hamstrung by one of the defining characteristics of modern slavery, its hidden nature.

“Quantifying modern slavery continues to be an important issue given its potential to influence not only policy, but also public perceptions. There is a continued appetite among policy makers, practitioners and the media for a current prevalence figure.”

The commissioner outlines why creating a detailed and accurate picture of slavery in the UK is so difficult, while also acknowledging that having better figures would have several benefits.

Primarily, it would mean there is a growing understanding of the issue, which would allow better policy development. It would also make it easier to talk about slavery more broadly.

The general public will tend to pay more attention to a situation that is described in better, more precise detail.

The bottom line is that there is plenty more to do, in Northern Ireland and in the UK, to tackle modern slavery.

Slavery being hidden means it can be difficult to see. That makes it easy to ignore.

This scourge needs to be put under a spotlight.

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