Victims of Modern Slavery in the UK 2021

Sophie Blanchard

MA student, Criminology and Crime Control 

Department of Criminology, University of Hull

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

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.

Summary of author’s recent publications

Dr Alicia Kidd

Postdoctoral Researcher

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

Today Alicia Kidd, postdoctoral researcher at the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of her recent chapters on human trafficking.

Both can be found in Julia Muraszkiewicz, Toby Fenton and Hayley Watson, eds, Human Trafficking in Conflict: Context, Causes and the Military (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), at

‘Unavoidable Exploitation? Conflict, Agency and Human Trafficking’

In this first chapter, I look at those who find themselves caught up in human trafficking and conflict. Both are topics that have received significant attention within the Social Sciences. However, there is little literature that looks explicitly at the intersections between the two, or that considers if – and how – conflict might impact a person’s risk of being trafficked. What does exist focuses predominantly on child soldiers and post-conflict zones.

As a result I begin with a summary of the literature surrounding child soldiers. It concentrates on how child soldiers fit the definition of being victims of human trafficking, the ways that child soldiers are recruited, their experiences whilst attached to an armed force or group, and how their experiences continue to affect them long after they leave, or after the conflict ends.

My focus then turns to post-conflict zones and how the long-lasting effects of conflict can continue to put people at risk of trafficking even after the conflict has ended. The existing literature highlights a range of issues leading to human trafficking in post-conflict situations including economic and political restructuring, corruption and poverty, as well as the vulnerabilities faced by refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and children; these topics are all discussed.

Whilst this chapter summarises current knowledge of the links between conflict and human trafficking, I build upon this knowledge by introducing the findings gathered from in-depth face-to-face interviews with individuals who have fled conflict to the UK. These findings provide personal insights into experiences of how conflict can increase a person’s vulnerability to becoming a victim of human trafficking.

Understandings of human trafficking often revert to an assumption that all agency must have been removed from the victim. While some victims of trafficking have no agency in the lead up to their trafficking experience, others have some level of choice in the decisions that lead towards their exploitation. Collating the existing literature and the findings from the interviews, I argue in this chapter that conflict impacts a person’s agency to the extent that it increases a person’s risk of being trafficked. Conflict restricts the choices available to a person, leaving them to choose between limited options which are commonly all imbued with risk. But while their choices may all be undesirable, people do exercise agency within the narrow range of options available to them, and some of these choices will lead to exploitation. As such, I argue that victimhood and agency should not be understood as a binary, but on a spectrum.

‘How Definitions of ‘Child Soldiers’ Exclude Girls from Demobilisation Efforts’ (with Dr Ally Dunhill)

The definition ‘child soldier’ is commonly understood to refer to any person under 18 used in any capacity by armed forces or groups; this includes armed combatants, but also those in ancillary roles such as cooks, ‘wives’ and guards. Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes exist to encourage soldiers to give up their weapons, to take them out of service, and to resettle them into civilian society. Such programmes aim to create stability, re-establish security and create the conditions needed for peace. However, while DDR programmes claim to be aimed at everyone involved in armed forces or armed groups, regardless of their role, in practice, they often use much narrower definitions for child soldiers, focusing predominantly on those who carry a weapon; this serves to exclude many roles typically undertaken by girls. 

In this chapter, co-written with Ally Dunhill, we examine the remit and outcomes of DDR programmes to understand why they differentiate between the gendered experiences of child soldiers. Using examples of these programmes, we analyse how children are identified and recruited into such initiatives. We contemplate whether children’s experiences as being part of armed forces (belonging to a state) and armed groups (not under the clear control of a state authority) are adequately considered, and whether the gendered treatment in these programmes is conducive to long term recovery and reintegration into civilian communities. We explore how girls are often overlooked in definitions of child soldiers and highlight the harmful consequences of this. We then assess how the outcomes of the programmes impact the futures of those both included and excluded in the remit of the programmes.

We find that in failing to recognise girls as victims in these situations, DDR programmes are leaving them in precarious situations whereby they have left a trafficking situation only to find themselves in a vulnerable position, facing a lack of support and a high risk of re-exploitation. Building on existing literature on female child soldiers, this chapter highlights the need for further research and concludes with recommendations for generating more effective and inclusive efforts to support female children associated with armed forces or armed groups.

Human Trafficking in Conflict: Context, Causes and the Military (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), at