NOTTINGHAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Britain clamps down on human trafficking and slavery, frontline medics and police officers often lack awareness and even the empathy required to support survivors, experts said.
At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure could be in the tens of thousands with slavery operations on the rise.
The National Crime Agency on Monday said it received 5,145 reports of suspected slavery victims in 2017 across Britain, an increase of more than a third from 3,804 in 2016.
But police often treat victims with suspicion if they have been involved in criminal activities like cannabis farming or drug trafficking, said detective inspector Henry Dick from central England’s Leicestershire police force.
“They’re being exploited but being treated like criminals. There’s a lack of understanding and perhaps a lack of empathy,” said Dick, who is part of the police’s modern slavery unit.
He said trafficking victims often lie about how they entered the country because they fear deportation, which can compound police or immigration officers’ suspicions.
“Freedom for them might be like dipping them in ice cold water, so we need to help them ease out of that through help and support,” Dick said.
Former nurse Nicola Wright said dealing with frontline services can be daunting for victims who often fear or distrust authorities.
“Sometimes our processes can be quite traumatic for people,” said Wright, as she helped to launch a network linking the National Health Service (NHS), charities, police, researchers and survivors to better support victims’ mental health.
“How do we build a supportive system which is based on good quality evidence that puts the survivor at the center?” said Wright, an assistant professor in mental health at the University of Nottingham.
While healthcare workers may come across slavery victims, there is no channel for them to report their suspicions or provide help, said Caroline Brookes, the NHS’s head of emergency preparedness.
“Do our staff have the skills to recognize somebody who could potentially be a modern slave?” she asked the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the launch event in Nottingham this week.
“If you have that professional gut feeling that something is not quite right, who do you talk to? There is such a big gap. There’s nothing at the moment,” said Brookes, who aims to roll out training for NHS staff to spot signs of trafficking.
The British government said last year it would overhaul the way it handles potential victims, with a raft of changes including drop-in services and extra shelter.
But rights groups said a government decision last month to halve financial aid for slavery survivors to 38 pounds ($53) per week could make them even more vulnerable.
For Minh Dang, it has taken years to process her experience of being enslaved by her parents and sold for sex throughout her childhood in the United States.
While rescuing victims is crucial, providing long-term care for survivors, including mental health support and employment, must also be a priority, she said.
“If we’re going to help identify victims and create space for people to exit, we need to be thinking about post-exit,” said Dang, who is researching post-slavery support for survivors at the University of Nottingham.
“Because what’s the point of being free if you’re just going to be struggling?”
Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katy Migiro; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories