Are there 10,000 slaves in Britain today?

16 December 2013

"The draft Modern Slavery Bill comes in the wake of recent high profile cases of alleged slavery, and amid reports that there could be as many as 10,000 people in the UK being held against their will."

The Independent, 16 December 2013

The Government today publishes its plans to tackle 'modern slavery', which its backers hope will help Britain to "set the standard for the rest of the world in countering modern slavery."

But just how widespread is the problem in the UK? The Home Secretary and several national newspapers were among those to speculate that there may be 10,000 people enslaved on these shores, despite the slave trade being abolished over 200 years ago.

Where does the figure come from?

While most of the reports today attributed the figure to Labour MP Frank Field, who has been working on the Bill on behalf of the Government, the source of the claim seems to be much older.

Conservative backbencher Peter Bone has been quoted as using the figure as far back as 2011, when he was co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking, and the group continues to carry the claim that "at least 10,000" people are living in slavery today.

We've been in touch with both Mr Bone's office and the Human Trafficking Foundation - one of the organisations supporting the APPG - about the provenance of the estimate, and are waiting to hear back. The Foundation has hinted at a similar total by using Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) statistics that show that 1,729 people were identified as victims of human trafficking in the 18 months between July 2011 and December 2012, and the assumption that "for every 1 slave found, 10 more remain hidden."

What do we know?

Like many illegal activities, it is difficult to get a full picture of the scale of the problem when it comes to modern slavery. A report from one think tank on the topic even suggested that agencies charged with tackling human trafficking are "groping in the dark for a sense of scale" of the problem.

It's perhaps unsurprising therefore that there are a number of very different estimates of the number of victims involved, and hard facts are difficult to come by.

The Home Office itself attempted to get a handle on the size of the problem in 2003, when it commissioned research that found that there were 3,812 women in the UK who had been trafficked into the country for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

However this estimate has proved controversial, and has been criticised for relying on some speculative assumptions, including that all of the foreign-born sex workers found in 'walk-up flats' in Soho were forcibly trafficked into the country. The researchers themselves warned that the data quality was "very poor", and said that the 3,812 estimate "should be regarded as an upper bound." Conversely, this estimate doesn't include those trafficked into the UK for purposes other than sex work.

In 2009 the Home Affairs select committee, while acknowledging that "neither the NGOs nor government agencies were willing even to guess the total number of trafficking victims in the UK," arrived at an estimate of at least 5,000 trafficking victims in the UK by combining the various small-scale studies conducted by charities working in the field.

A year later the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) estimated that around 2,600 sex workers were victims of trafficking in the UK, although it also faced criticism for being "overly prescriptive" in defining trafficking as those cases where the victim had been recruited forcibly for the purposes of exploitation. ACPO also identified 9,600 cases involving women who were "vulnerable", but did not meet the trafficking threshold they had set.

More recently, the 2013 Global Slavery Index from the Walk Free Foundation estimated that there were between 4,200 and 4,600 people enslaved in the UK, the eighth lowest total in the world. Despite being lower than many others, this estimate uses a more expansive definition of slavery, encompassing "the possession and control of a person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty, with the intent of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal."

We got in touch with the team behind the index and were told that it did use the 2003 Home Office report alongside other sources to inform its estimates, and that some UK law enforcement officials had been in touch with the organisation to suggest that the true number might be higher than their estimate suggested.

Actual data on human trafficking difficult to come by, but SOCA does publish figures on the number of cases identified by the National Referral Mechanism, which allows it to collate data collected by a variety of NGOs and agencies. In 2012, 1,186 cases were identified through the NRM:

Using the NRM data and supplementing it with additional intelligence provided by organisations not covered by the NRM, SOCA identified 2,255 potential victims of human trafficking (the figures only refer to potential victims as there was no verification done by SOCA that the cases referred to it met a common definition of human trafficking).


The claim that there are 10,000 victims of slavery in the UK today is at the upper end of the range of estimates that exist on the topic, and while there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest it might best represent the true scale of the problem, the estimate is subject to a huge degree of uncertainty.

We don't yet know how the 10,000 figure has been arrived at (and look forward to updating once we have more information), but it is notable that the draft legislation published today refers only to the NRM data and the SOCA identification of 2,255 potential victims of trafficking.

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