Human 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. For example, human trafficking would include transporting women to a different city for sex against their will.

Many victims do not realise that they are experiencing modern slavery, or that they have been trafficked. Many others 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 using extreme violence and 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.

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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.

Forced labour: victims are forced to work against their will, often working very long hours for little or no pay in dire conditions under verbal or physical threats of violence to them or their families. Victims are often forced to work to pay off unrealistically large debts. It can happen in many sectors of the economy, from mining to tarmacking, agriculture, fishing, construction, hospitality, nail bars, cannabis cultivation, food packaging.

Sexual exploitation:  victims are forced to perform non-consensual or abusive sexual acts for example prostitution, escort work and pornography for profit of others. Women and children make up the majority of victims.

Criminal exploitation: often controlled and maltreated, victims are forced into crimes such as cannabis cultivation, shoplifting, forced begging or pick-pocketing against their will.

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

Domestic servitude: victims are forced to carry out housework and domestic chores in private households with little or no pay, their movement is often restricted and they have very limited or no free time.

Organ harvesting: people are trafficked or exploited so their organs can be sold to be used in transplants. Sometimes victims are deceived into giving up their organs; others may agree to sell organs but are not paid afterwards or are underpaid; others have organs stolen during (often unnecessary) operations.

Sources: UNESCO; Human Trafficking Foundation;; The Guardian

On 11 September 2017, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland released a research report into the dynamics of modern slavery experienced by Vietnamese nationals. The report found that people smugglers are charging Vietnamese nationals as much as £30,000 to reach the UK.

Chief executive of Refuge, Sandra Horley CBE, said:

“It is hugely encouraging to see the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s report and focus on combating modern slavery experienced by Vietnamese nationals and his continued pressure on the Government to improve the national referral mechanism (NRM).  Refuge supports Vietnamese women and children in its national network of support services and we know that victims are terrified of coming forward. They need specialist, confidential, support services – in their language – to get to safety. Only then will we see an increase in prosecutions to eliminate this evil trade.”

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 (NRM)
  • 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

To access confidential support call Refuge’s Modern Slavery Service on: 020 7395 7722 or email:

Find out how Refuge is supporting the Evening Standard’s Slavery on our Streets campaign., and how we have found that survivors of domestic violence are very often victims of people trafficking.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd and other key figures – including Refuge chief executive Sandra Horley CBE – praise the Evening Standard’s expose on slavery.


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