Tackling modern slavery is a job for everyone

20 Feb 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 20 Feb 2020

It’s not very often that the public is at the forefront of dealing with serious crime. But, when it comes to slavery, we should all be vigilant.


Modern slavery is an underreported crime. The extent to which it is underreported is difficult to know. Both these facts are inherent.

This is because victims of slavery are generally reluctant or unable to come forward and speak with police. At the same time, those who perpetrate slavery try to protect themselves by keeping the crime hidden - whether behind closed doors or in plain sight.

According to the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s strategic plan for 2019-21, an estimated 136,000 people in the UK are living in modern slavery (figures parsed from the Global Slavery Index).

That’s an extraordinary figure - just over one in every 500 people.

Applying that same percentage to Northern Ireland provides an estimate of almost 4,000 people here living in slavery. That is a crude assumption but still serves some indication of the scale of the problem.

Yet according to the latest figures, covering the period between April and October 2019, the PSNI investigated 54 referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (the NRM is the framework for identifying and supporting victims of human trafficking and/or modern slavery). This was up from 33 referrals over the same six-month period in 2018.

Those living in modern slavery rarely reveal themselves to authorities. They live in fear. Those keeping them enslaved apply all sorts of pressure to ensure their crimes remain hidden. This can be coercion, threats of violence, actual violence, or a complete denial of real contact with the outside world.

Dealing with modern slavery requires other people to spot the signs.


In some ways, Northern Ireland has more robust measures to deal with slavery than other parts of the UK.

Per the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s current strategic plan: “Health practitioners are well placed to identify victims of modern slavery who may seek help for many kinds of mental or physical health problems.”

This makes sense. Victims of slavery may have few contacts with statutory services, and few personal interactions that are not overseen by their captors.

Yet Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where health professionals can refer directly to the National Referral Mechanism. Each health trust has a dedicated referral team.

The Commissioner’s plan to take on slavery has four priorities:

  • Improving victim care and support
  • Supporting law enforcement and prosecution
  • Focusing on prevention
  • Getting value from research and innovation

Dame Sara Thornton DBE QPM, the current Anti-Slavery Commissioner, added: “My priorities rightly focus on victim protection and the prosecution of traffickers, but I also want to focus on the prevention of modern slavery and human trafficking.  We need to do much more to tackle the systemic issues that allow the crime to thrive.

“There are encouraging signs that businesses are taking steps to reduce slave labour in their products and services, but much remains to be done. In particular we need to raise the awareness of consumers and citizens–we are often closer than we realise to the exploitation of others.

“Concern about the social cost of products and services needs to match our concerns for the environmental cost.”

Public onus

The public’s role here is paramount. That means everyone.

This is why the Department of Justice’s messaging about modern slavery is focused on public awareness, asking people to “be vigilant for signs of slavery and trafficking happening in Northern Ireland.”

This is why the messaging is keen to list some of the signs of modern slavery, namely:

  • Someone who is distrustful of authorities;
  • Someone who appears to be under the control of others;
  • An over-crowded house or flat;
  • Someone who is unsure of their address or the local area;
  • Someone who may not have cash because they can’t keep the money they earn or
  • Someone who can’t produce their passport or personal documents.

Claire Archbold, Director of Safer Communities Department of Justice, said: “I would appeal to people to be vigilant about the existence of modern slavery in Northern Ireland. 

“The Department aims to prevent people from getting drawn into slavery by reducing the vulnerability of those who may be targeted by traffickers and enslavers; and ensuring that the general public is equipped to spot the signs of exploitation and report any suspicions.”

It is unusual for justice officials to put so much effort into getting the public to engage with tackling crime. But modern slavery is an unusual crime.

This isn’t about police failings. It goes to the nature of the crime. Modern slavery could be anywhere. It could be in your town, on your street, in the house next door. And victims tend to avoid the authorities rather than speak up. That’s why public vigilance is so important.

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