Anti-slavery charities call for stronger protections for modern slavery survivors in the UK

Thousands of modern slavery survivors in the UK are failed by the current system. This manifesto outlines key recommendations to prioritise their safety, including a right to work, legal aid reform, and increased prosecutions.
Anti-slavery charities call for stronger protections for UK modern slavery victims

An estimated 122,000 people are trapped in modern slavery in the UK. The UK has a significant role to play in combating this horrific crime, but recent legislative changes and weaknesses in the current system are putting survivors at risk. 

In response, Unseen, alongside other providers supporting survivors of modern slavery in the UK, is issuing a call to action. This manifesto, titled “Putting victims first: renewing the UK commitment to the safety of victims of trafficking and modern slavery”, outlines a series of key recommendations to create a more robust and person-centred approach. 

This new manifesto builds upon our earlier “Putting Victims First” manifesto, which highlighted essential steps the next UK government should take within its first 100 days to prioritise survivor safety. 

Who’s behind the manifesto?

The voices behind this manifesto come from the frontline of the fight against modern slavery. Since 2011, this collective has supported over 21,824 survivors, witnessing firsthand the shortcomings of the current system.

Our unique perspective, informed by years of working directly with survivors, exposes these weaknesses and proposes practical solutions for a more effective response. 

“For too long, the overall response to modern slavery across services has placed bureaucratic hurdles ahead of survivor safety,” says Lauren Saunders, Head of Policy and Research at Unseen. “Recent legislative changes have instilled fear and uncertainty among survivors. 

“Our manifesto calls for a fundamental shift in focus, ensuring that the UK’s response to modern slavery is truly person-centred. By prioritising safety, empowering survivors, and dismantling trafficking networks, we can build a future where the UK leads the fight to eradicate modern slavery.” 

frontline worker supporting survivor of modern slavery.
The manifesto's recommendations:

The manifesto outlines six key recommendations: 

  • Prioritise survivor safety: the manifesto calls for the suspension of Sections 22-29 of the recent Illegal Migration Act and a review of the Nationality and Borders Act’s impact on victims. These legislative changes have created a hostile environment, reducing the crucial reflection and recovery period. The manifesto emphasises a return to a minimum 30-day period for all potential victims, regardless of immigration status. This allows access to crucial support services in the early stages. Additionally, all survivors with positive National Referral Mechanism (NRM) decisions, the Government’s system for identifying and supporting victims of modern slavery, should receive at least 12 months of support, with the option to extend. 
  • Revamp the National Referral Mechanism: a complete overhaul of the NRM is urged, with a focus on ensuring it delivers transformative support for victims. This should empower survivors to rebuild their lives with a sense of safety, hope, and purpose in the long term. The government should also set clear timeframes to reduce NRM processing delays. 
  • Empowerment through work: we advocate for the right to work for all survivors throughout their time in the NRM. This would allow them to develop skills, contribute to the UK economy, and prevent de-skilling. 
  • Invest in legal aid: We call for a thorough assessment of the legal aid crisis and increased investment to ensure all potential victims have access to the legal support they are entitled to under the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (ECAT) framework. This international treaty, ratified by the UK, sets out a comprehensive framework for countries to prevent trafficking, protect victims, and prosecute perpetrators.  
  • Centering survivor voices: we propose a duty to collaborate with survivors when drafting relevant legislation. This would ensure survivor experiences directly inform policy decisions. 
  • Increase prosecutions: we call for more specialist police teams, investment in victim navigators – specialised professionals who support victims of modern slavery throughout the criminal justice process – and collaboration with law enforcement to significantly increase prosecutions of perpetrators. However, prosecutions should never come at the expense of survivor wellbeing, and survivors should not be pressured to assist investigations against their will. 

Modern slavery thrives in the shadows, exploiting the vulnerable and denying them their fundamental human rights. By implementing these recommendations, the UK can take a significant step towards a more robust and person-centered approach to tackling this global issue. 

The manifesto is supported by fellow NGOs Ashiana, Bawso, BCHA, Black Country Women’s Aid, Causeway, Hestia, Medaille Trust, Migrant Help, The Salvation Army, The Snowdrop Project, Saint John of God Hospitaller Services, Palm Cove Society.  

Read the full manifesto to learn more about these critical recommendations. 

What can you do?

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Justine Currell

As I came to understand more about the issue, including through a visit to an Unseen safehouse, I knew I needed to do more to stop this abuse and exploitation.

For the last five years of my Civil Service career, I was the Modern Slavery Senior Policy Advisor in the Home Office and led on development of the Modern Slavery Act, including the transparency in supply chains provision and business guidance.

I joined Unseen to lead the development of the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, and Unseen’s work with businesses. I am regularly called upon to present at national and international conferences and use my experience of working with Ministers to influence other governments internationally to take action to address modern slavery and, in particular, business supply chain issues.

In my spare time I enjoy keeping fit, music, reading and travelling.

Andrew Wallis

What ultimately compelled me to act was a report on how people from Eastern Europe were being trafficked through Bristol airport to the USA. Kate Garbers, who went on to be an Unseen Director, and I wrote to all the city councillors, MPs and the Police Chief Constable challenging them on the issue. The challenge came back to us: this city needs safe housing for trafficked women. And so Unseen began.

But we never wanted Unseen to be just about safe housing. We wanted to end slavery once and for all, and that remains our driving focus.

I chaired the working group for the Centre for Social Justice’s landmark report “It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to Fight Modern Slavery”. This is now acknowledged as the catalyst behind the UK’s Modern Slavery Act of 2015. It was a great honour to be awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours that year. On the other hand, I’ve also been described as “the loveliest disrupter you could ever hope to meet”.

This job has taken me from building flat-pack furniture for safehouses, to working with businesses to address slavery in supply chains, to delivering training, raising awareness and advising governments around the world.

When not at work, I enjoy travelling, spending time with my dog Harley, cooking, supporting Liverpool and Yorkshire CC, music (I’m a former DJ) and endurance events such as the Three Peaks Challenge and Tribe Freedom Runs – which I vow never to do again. Until the next time.