Counting The Cost of Child Exploitation

Sophie Blanchard

MA student, Criminology and Crime Control 

Department of Criminology, University of Hull

s.l.blanchard-2017@hull.ac.uk

This blog takes a look at the recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) publication of statistics for child victims of modern slavery in the UK. This is the first publication of its kind by the ONS and draws on data from the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), Police Recorded Crime (PRC), Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Department for Education’s Children in Need Census (CINC), The Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline, amongst other organisations. This ONS publication seeks to provide a deeper insight into the incidences of child victims of modern slavery in the UK.

There is no one data source that accurately quantifies the number of child victims in the UK. The NRM currently provides the best measure of potential victims, although it is known to be an undercount. In this blog we will look at the different sources that support the ONS publication, identify strengths and weaknesses of this type of data collection and aim to provide a summary of the data within it.

How many potential victims have been identified?

In 2021, 5,468 potential child victims were referred into the NRM. This shows a 9% increase from the previous year when 5,028 potential child victims were referred. The number of potential child victims of modern slavery in the UK has increased every year since the NRM was established in 2009. However, it can be argued that the increased number of potential victims being referred is not just because there are more victims but because there is increasing awareness and training amongst first responders.

Whilst the numbers went up for the NRM, the number of potential child victims of modern slavery identified by the Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline decreased drastically. In 2021, the helpline received information about 194 potential child victims of modern slavery, which came from calls, web forms, and app entries. This shows a 43% decrease from the previous year when there were 340 potential victims, although the reasons for this are as yet unclear.

Figure 1: Comparison of PRC and NRM figures, April 2016 – March 2021

YearPolice Recorded Crime child victims of modern slaveryYearNational Referral Mechanism child victims of modern slavery
Apr 2016 to Mar 2017287Jan 2017 to Dec 20172,114
Apr 2017 to Mar 2018679Jan 2018 to Dec 20183,129
Apr 2018 to Mar 20191,327Jan 2019 to Dec 20194,554
Apr 2019 to Mar 20202,547Jan 2020 to Dec 20205,028
Apr 2020 to Mar 20213,239Jan 2021 to Dec 20215,468

When we compare the PRC statistics on child victims of modern slavery and the NRM figures in each 12-month period we observe there is a significant difference (Figure 1). This difference highlights a worrying gap in the amount of identified cases of potential child exploitation and the policing response to investigating these potential crimes.  

What are the ages of the victims?

Figure 2: Age of child victims, 2017-2021

Figure 2 shows the ages of child victims from PRC in England and Wales. The largest age group throughout years 2017 to 2021 are 13- to 16-year-olds. The statistics from April 2018 to March 2019 and April 2019 to March 2020 show the number of victims who were aged 13 to 16 almost doubled.

According to the NRM data for the year ending December 2021, over four-fifths, (82%) of the children who received a positive reasonable grounds decision from the NRM were aged 15 to 17 years old. This could simply be because more 15- to 17-year-olds are referred into the NRM and can be backed up by the PCR graph above which shows 13 to 17-year-olds being the most reported ages.

What are the genders of the victims?

Figure 3: Gender of potential child victims, 2021

According to the Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline statistics, the most common gender of the 194 potential child victims of modern slavery reported to the helpline in 2021 were female (32%), even though the category of unknown genders is higher than both male and female victims (Figure 3). In contrast, the NRM 2021 end of year statistics appear to show that there were 4,314 male and 1,145 female potential child victims, a total of 5,459, leaving 9 potential child victims of unknown gender. These two contrasting data sets make it difficult to produce any useful overview of the gender of children who are both identified and referred into the NRM and of those that fall outside the scope of the NRM statistics. The ONS publication does not make specific reference to an overview of gender in this way because of this challenge. This is an obvious weakness of collecting and sharing data from multiple different data sets.

In the NRM, of those children who received a positive reasonable grounds decision in 2021, 79% were male and 21% were female.

What are the nationalities of the victims?

When looking at the NRM statistics for the nationalities of the potential child victims, UK nationals are the most commonly identified at 2,981. The five most common nationalities of child victims reflect the five most common nationalities of adult victims, if in a slightly different order (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The five most common nationalities of potential child victims, 2021

What types of exploitation were reported?

The main types of exploitation which have been reported through all organisations have been criminal exploitation (county lines are a significant factor here, especially for males) and sexual exploitation. In the NRM data set males were most likely to have experienced criminal exploitation (62%) and for females it is sexual exploitation (42%).

The Independent Child Trafficking Guardians service (ICTGS) showed that there were 27% more referrals in 2020 than in the previous year (555 in 2020 from 437 in 2019). From the data on exploitation types from October 2018 to December 2019, 379 males and 134 females were referred to ICTGS with a higher number of males who have been criminally exploited (216) than females (17).

Conclusion

Overall, the data that are used and reported within this publication from the ONS are not directly comparable due to the different time periods and the variable recording measures used by each organisation. Some data are separated and cannot be combined and compared with other statistics – not all jurisdictions of the UK are covered by some of the data sources, for example. However, despite the weaknesses and limitations that this report shows, it is a step in the right direction and does provide a somewhat better understanding of the extent of modern slavery in the UK.

In addition, this publication could serve as a useful foundation for gathering data from a much broader set of sources that lay outside the NRM statistics in the future. This would help to give us a far more accurate picture of how many children are being identified as being at risk of exploitation and not just those exclusively referred into the NRM.

Victims of Modern Slavery in the UK 2021

Sophie Blanchard

MA student, Criminology and Crime Control 

Department of Criminology, University of Hull

s.l.blanchard-2017@hull.ac.uk

Sophie Blanchard is an MA student on the Criminal Justice and Crime Control course at the University of Hull. Her research focuses on the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and her MA dissertation project looks at the effectiveness of the NRM in identifying and protecting potential victims of modern slavery.  In this blog she summarises the 2021 Home Office Report on the NRM.

New statistics have been released, summarising information on people who have been identified as potential victims of modern slavery in the UK in 2021. The statistical bulletin provides a breakdown of the number of potential victims that were referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) or via the Duty to Notify process. It breaks down the data in a number of ways, including via the ages of the potential victims, as well as their nationalities, gender, and type of exploitation they experienced.

The NRM, which was set up in 2009, is the governmental framework used in the UK to identify and support potential victims of modern slavery who have been identified by a set list of First Responders. The Duty to Notify process collects data on adults who do not consent to be referred to the NRM (children are not required to give consent). Combined, these figures give an estimate of the picture of modern slavery in the UK.

The term ‘potential victims’ is used to denote that these are the figures relating to individuals referred into the NRM, or via the Duty to Notify process. These figures are likely to be significantly lower once individuals have been through the NRM’s two-tier decision making process to determine that, on the balance of probabilities, a competent authority believes them to meet the definition of being victims of modern slavery.

How many people have been identified?

In 2021, 12,727 potential victims of modern slavery in the UK were referred to the Home Office, which represents a 20% increase compared to the 10,601 potential victims referred in 2020. The number of potential victims of modern slavery in the UK has been increasing each year since 2014, apart from a slight decrease in 2020, commonly noted to be a result of the national lockdowns in response to the Covid-19 pandemic:

YearNumber of Referrals
20142,340
20153,266
20163,805
20175,145
20186,993
201910,627
202010,601
202112,727

The number of referrals received in 2021 has been the highest since the NRM began in 2009. However, the increase in referrals does not necessarily correlate with there being more victims, but could indicate that First Responders are improving at identifying potential victims. Reports via the Duty to Notify process alone have increased by 47% from 2020 with 3,190 reports of potential victims, which indicates a better awareness of this system amongst professionals.

Are the victims adults or children?

Of the potential victims identified, 848 (7%) were of unknown age, 6,411 (50%) were adults, which has increased from 48% in 2020, and 5,468 (43%) were children (minors, under the age of 18). After October 2019, when criminal exploitation was set as its own category of exploitation (where previously it was counted within labour exploitation) which made it easier to identify different types of exploitation that potential victims were being subjected to, referrals indicated that labour exploitation was the most common form of exploitation suffered by adults, while minors (under 18) were more likely to be victims of criminal exploitation. This year’s statistics continue this trend, with these still being the most common forms of exploitation for adult and child victims of modern slavery. In 2021, labour exploitation was the most reported form of exploitation amongst adult potential victims at 33%; 2,141 victims. The most referred exploitation for child potential victims was criminal exploitation at 49%; 2,689 cases.

What gender are the victims?

Of those 12,727 identified in 2021, 9,790 (77%) were male and 2,923 (23%) were female. The remaining 14 are categorised under ‘Not specified or unknown’ or ‘Other’. The statistics of genders of victims are similar to the previous years, but male potential victims have been increasing in referrals over the years. In 2021, 75% of adult potential victims (4,812) and 79% of child potential victims (4,314) were male, whilst 25% of adult potential victims (1,594) and 21% of child potential victims (1,145) were female. The majority of female potential victims, both adults and children, were victims of sexual exploitation.

What are the nationalities of the victims?

The most common nationalities of potential victims identified in the UK in 2021 were UK, Albanian and Vietnamese nationals respectively. UK nationals accounted for 3,952 (31%) of potential victims which decreased slightly from the previous year of 34% in 2020. Albanian nationals were the second most referred nationality with 2,511 (20%) which increased from 15% in 2020, and the third was Vietnamese with 991 (8%). Eritrean also had a notable increase in referrals in 2021, which increased from 395 (3%) in 2020, to 712 (6%) in 2021.

What types of exploitation have the victims experienced?

The data tables which provide the breakdown of information on referrals include a summary of the types of exploitation suffered by those identified as potential victims. These include criminal exploitation, labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and organ harvesting. The data summarises the number of referrals for each category of exploitation, including where multiple forms of exploitation were experienced. Looking at cases where only one form of exploitation was experienced, the most common form of exploitation identified in 2021 was criminal exploitation with 4,155 referrals. This has increased since becoming classed as a separate form of exploitation in October 2019, before which it was categorised within labour exploitation, making it harder to identify as a distinct form of exploitation. Labour exploitation made up 3,127 of the referrals in 2021 and sexual exploitation made up 1,266 referrals. However, a concerningly large number of referrals, 1,046 cases, were referred under ‘unknown or not specified’ exploitation which raises concerns over the level of detail provided within the referral forms.

The findings of the 2021 report make for difficult reading. If you have any questions, please contact Sophie at the email address above.