Trafficking bannerHuman trafficking and modern slavery

Refuge supports victims of human trafficking and modern slavery across its national services. Many victims of modern slavery are trafficked into the UK from overseas and many others (including a significant number of British nationals) are trafficked within and across the UK and held in conditions of slavery.

Victims often feel unable to tell anybody what has happened to them because they are afraid – of deportation, the authorities, and their abusers. Traffickers may keep their victims enslaved by telling them they will be arrested if they seek help. Using victims’ fear about their immigration status to control them is a common tactic used by traffickers and perpetrators of other forms of gender-based violence. Refuge understands this fear.

Some people see modern slavery as an unfortunate by-product of migration. This is wrong: modern slavery is a crime, it is a violation of a person’s human rights and victims need and deserve protection and support.

Slavery was officially abolished many years ago – yet it still goes on today in most countries around the world, including in the UK. So-called ‘modern’ slavery includes:

Human trafficking, which is the movement of a person from one place to another, within a country or across borders, into conditions of exploitation against their will.

Child trafficking, where children are moved either internationally or domestically so they can be exploited.

Sexual exploitation, where victims are forced to perform non-consensual or sexual acts against their will (such as prostitution, escort work and pornography). Whilst women and children make up the majority of victims, men can also be affected. Adults are often coerced with the threat of force or another penalty.

Domestic servitude, where victims are forced to carry out housework and domestic chores in private households with little or no pay, restricted movement, very limited or no free time and minimal privacy, often sleeping where they work.

Early and forced marriage, is when women are married without consent, often while still girls, and forced into sexual and domestic servitude.

Debt bondage, where victims are forced to work to pay off debts which realistically they will never be able to. Low wages mean not only that they cannot ever hope to pay off the loan, but the debt may be passed down to their children.

Forced labour, where victims are forced to work against their will, often working for very long hours, for little or no pay and in dire conditions. They may also be working under verbal or physical threats of violence to them or their families. It can happen in many sectors of our economy, from mining to tarmacking, hospitality and food packaging.

Criminal exploitation, where victims are forced into crimes such as cannabis cultivation or pickpocketing against their will.

Organ trafficking, which  involves trafficking people in order to use their internal organs for transplant.

Refuge can help victims (current or potential) of modern slavery to access support that is tailored to their specific risks and experiences, for example relating to:

  • Safety
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Trauma
  • Economic independence
  • Immigration support
  • Legal advice
  • Asylum claims
  • Access to the National Referral Mechanism
  • Safe communication with friends and family
  • Safe use of technology
  • Criminal justice remedies, including reporting the abuse to the police and helping to secure prosecutions
  • Emotional support from expert staff who speak the same language as victims or potential victims, increasing their understanding of what has happened to them

One of Refuge’s outreach workers from its specialist service for Vietnamese women tells Anh’s story:

“Anh* had been trafficked into forced labour ten years ago. The traffickers regularly subjected her to physical, financial and psychological abuse. She had insecure immigration status and her traffickers ensured she would not seek help by regularly threatening deportation.


“Anh was deeply traumatised – she was very tearful and suffered nightmares every night. She told me she found it difficult to look in the mirror because all she could see was a very old and grey person looking back in the reflection. She worried constantly about her health deteriorating and feared that nobody would be able to identify her if she died or had an accident. “No-one will know who I belong to”, she told me.


“At regular key work sessions, communicating in Vietnamese and at her own pace, I helped her explore the abuse she experienced and accept that it was not her fault. Slowly, she became more confident, and felt able to share more about her experiences and how they were affecting her on a daily basis.


“I was able to refer her to specialist counselling and organised several emergency appointments with an immigration lawyer. We also obtained temporary accommodation for her and helped her to access a weekly personal allowance. Now, my client tells me she feels there is hope for the future. She can smile again.”

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity