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Preventing modern slavery: the role of the NHS

In the lead up to the 2019 National Safeguarding Conference, the Chief Executive of STOP THE TRAFFIK offers advice to NHS staff on how to spot the signs, report potential cases and help stop modern slavery: 

Human trafficking and modern slavery is happening every day across the UK, affecting thousands of men, women and children.

Trafficked and exploited persons are often forced to live and work at the margins of society so that they remain hidden and are unable to ask for help. However, given the high-risk jobs they do, victims often require healthcare services to treat problems such as broken bones caused by accidents on dangerous work sites, or sexual health conditions linked to sexual exploitation. This gives the NHS a unique opportunity to make a difference to these victims’ lives.

According to the 2016 Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hayland, one-in-five victims report having come into contact with healthcare services during the time they were being trafficked.

STOP THE TRAFFIK has received intelligence from NHS staff supporting this statement and highlighting the ways staff might interact with victims. In one case, an unregistered male came into a GPs surgery suffering from back pain. He explained that it was due to lifting paving slabs all day whilst working on a local traveller site. The GP suspected he was being exploited and, by asking the right questions, found out that the patient was not in possession of his passport and was living in a caravan on the site. The patient revealed that he planned to escape as he had managed to obtain a mobile phone. Unfortunately, as the doctor did not know how to report his concerns without endangering the patient the case was never followed-up.

Although being aware of modern slavery victims is yet another demand on NHS staff’s resource and time, prevention does not have to be demanding. By asking the right questions, remaining vigilant and reporting suspicions to the correct authorities, NHS staff can save victims from modern slavery.

Spotting the signs of modern slavery is not always easy. Victims are often fearful of their controllers and may try to hide their situation due to fear of retributions against themselves, friends or family. However, many NHS staff are already aware of potential victims, in fact, one-in-eight NHS staff in England think they have seen a victim of trafficking in their clinical practice.

NHS staff need to be aware of behavioural and physical signs that victims might show, these include:

  • Refusal to give name or contact information
  • No identification documents
  • Appearing malnourished or dishevelled
  • Appearing fearful or scared of staff, authorities or a specific individual
  • Being in the presence of a controller
  • Inappropriate clothing
  • Being in the presence of another person who translates for them

Whilst seeing only one of these signs might not be a direct indication of modern slavery, seeing several of these signs should raise suspicion.

If you suspect that someone is a victim of modern slavery it is important that you remain safe. Direct confrontation, especially in the presence of the controller, is not advised. If you are suspicious or feel uncomfortable about a patient’s situation, then make sure you stop and consult. Sharing your suspicions with another staff member ensures potential victims do not go unnoticed.

There are a number of options available to you, including:

  • Share your suspicions with your line manager or named doctor
  • Talk to a designated nurse or doctor at your local CCG
  • Ask for advice or refer a patient to a relevant social care organisation
  • Download the STOP APP and share your suspicions with STOP THE TRAFFIK. The app contains advice on the signs of modern slavery and provides a quick and accessible reporting mechanism. This is a great reporting tool to use if you are unsure about the situation but still want to share. STOP THE TRAFFIK use this anonymous data to develop the bigger picture of global hotspots and trends, making our prevention efforts more accurate and targeted

If you think that someone is in immediate danger you should call the police at 999.

The safeguarding of vulnerable people has always been a key part of the NHS and victims of modern slavery are just that. Caring for these individuals that are almost invisible to society requires concerted effort from all healthcare providers.

Every staff member at the NHS has a part to play in the identification and consequently the prevention of modern slavery. We know it’s a big ask, vulnerable individuals might be distressed and distrustful, but it is important to remember that these are victims and therefore we have a moral duty to help in any way that we can.

Ruth Dearnley, will be discussing modern slavery and human trafficking at the 2019 National Safeguarding Conference. For more information and to register your interest to join the conference, please visit the following Safeguarding Conference webpage.

Ruth Dearnley OBE

Ruth Dearnley OBE became Chief Executive for STOP THE TRAFFIK in May 2008 having participated in its formation in 2005.

With a law degree and background in education, she inspires and enables people to transform the world around them.

Ruth believes that STOP THE TRAFFIK’s working model demonstrates the unique power of bringing people and technology into a harmonious relationship for good for all, imagining a different future where good can prevail.

Ruth was honoured with the award of an OBE in the 2014 British New Year Honours.

For more information on STOP THE TRAFFIK, please visit the STOP THE TRAFFIK website.

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  1. Clare Nunn says:

    An excellent article and an essential tool for NHS staff as they work on the frontline where they can help to spot this horrendous crime.