What is the National Referral Mechanism?

The National Referral Mechanism is a process set up by the Government to identify and support victims of trafficking in the UK. It was born out of the Government's obligation to identify victims under the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Human Trafficking, which came into force on 1 February 2008. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and ensuring they receive the appropriate protection and support.

The NRM is also the mechanism through which the Home Office collects data about victims. This information aims to help build a clearer picture about the scope of human trafficking in the UK.

From 31st July 2015, the NRM was extended to all victims of modern slavery in England and Wales following the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Modern slavery is comprised of: 

1) Human trafficking
2) Slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour

How does the NRM work?

First respondersTo be referred to the NRM, potential victims of trafficking must first be referred to the UK’s Single Competent Authority (SCA) by a designated 'first responder'. Current first responders are:

The Home Office (including UK Border Force, UK Visas and Immigration, and Immigration Enforcement)
Local authorities
Health and Social Care Trusts
UK police forces

Poppy Project
The National Crime Agency (NCA)

TARA Project (Scotland)
Migrant Help
Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA)
Medaille Trust
Salvation Army
Unseen UK
New Pathways

Refugee Council

The first responder completes a digital form alongside the appropriate guidance, in as much detail as possible, and sends it to the SCA.

The duty to notify

Since the 1st November 2015, specified public authorities (this includes police and local authorities) have a duty to notify the Home Office about all potential victims of trafficking and slavery.  

All designated first responders should use the digital referral system to make National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and Duty to Notify (DtN) referrals. Further information can be found in the guidance documents on this page. If you think this will be a problem for you, or if you want to provide any feedback on the online referral process please email [email protected]

In the case of suspected child victims, an NRM referral satisfies this duty.

The NRM for children

Modern slavery, including child trafficking, is child abuse. When an agency comes into contact with a child who may have been exploited or trafficked, Local Authority Children’s Services and the police should be notified immediately. A referral into the NRM does not replace or supersede established child protection processes, which should continue in tandem, such as a Section 47 investigation. 

All children, irrespective of their immigration status, are entitled to safeguarding and protection under the law. Referrals to the NRM should be for all potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery, who can be of any nationality, and may include British national children, such as those trafficked for child sexual exploitation or those trafficked for criminal exploitation such as drug supply internally in the UK. 

Where there is reason to believe a victim could be a child, the individual must be given the benefit of the doubt and treated as a child until an assessment is carried out. Age assessments must only be carried out where there is significant reason to doubt that the person is a child and should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of an unaccompanied or trafficked child. 

Adults must consent to be referred into the NRM (if they don’t give informed consent then there still remains a duty to notify the Home Office). Consent is not required for children (those under 18), but it is important to explain the process to them. The duty to notify is satisfied by the NRM in all children’s cases. There is no specific time scale for when an NRM referral should be made but it is advisable that it is made as soon as possible to assist in the safeguarding the child.

Decision making

The SCA will make a first-stage, 'reasonable grounds' decision. The threshold for this is low: ‘I suspect but cannot prove’. This should be done within five days. A positive decision triggers a 45-day recovery and reflection period. During this time the competent authority should seek out further information.

Following this, a conclusive grounds decision should be made by the same competent authority. The stated threshold for this is a balance of probabilities: ‘It is more likely than not’. During the 45 days, the victim cannot be removed from the UK. Police can request an extension to this if required. Victims might apply for asylum or may receive temporary admission. Support provision in the NRM in the UK, unlike in some other countries, is not dependent on the victim participating in a criminal investigation. There is no formal appeal process in the NRM, which is often criticised. If those supporting the child think the decision is wrong, reconsideration should be requested to the SCA. The child should also be referred to a specialist solicitor who can advise in line with the negative decision if it is appropriate to challenge it via judicial review proceedings.

What happens next?

The victim may be granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK to allow them to co-operate fully in any police investigation, due to personal circumstances or to claim compensation. The period of discretionary leave can be extended if required. In the case of children, the Home Office must consider the best interest of the child and grant them discretionary leave accordingly. This is currently limited in practice and the child requires a specialist immigration legal advisor who can represent them in consideration of leave to ensure a grant and the length is give in accordance with their best interests. This form of leave must be automatically considered for all victims subject to immigration control following a positive conclusive grounds decision.

What does the NRM tell us?

In 2020, there were 4,946 children referred into the NRM. Children comprised nearly half (47%) of the total number of suspected trafficking victims in 2020, rising by almost 10% compared to the previous year. Of those referred into the NRM in 2019, the most common country of origin of these children was the UK (58%), followed by Vietnam (5%), Sudan (3%), Albania (3%), Romania (<3%) and Eritrea (<3%). Other notable countries of origin include Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Iran. 

There was a rise in UK nationals referred into the NRM in 2020, building on a gradual increase in recent years, which is in part a result of the increasing recognition of UK national children as victims of trafficking. Additionally, between April - June 2020, more children than adults were identified as potential victims of trafficking for the first time ever. Over recent years there has been a particular increase in the number of UK national children who were identified as potential victims of criminal exploitation, sometimes referred to as 'county lines'. 

The NRM also captures information about breakdown of age, gender, outcomes of referrals and which agencies referrals have come from.

Latest statistics

See the latest statistics for children (and adults) who have been referred as suspected victims of human trafficking:

Latest annual statistics

NRM Statistics End of Year Summary 2020

Latest quarterly statistics

NRM Statistics October - December 2020

Further guidance

There is statutory guidance for local authorities about the care of unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery and practice guidance for all practitioners, which contains more detailed provision for identifying children who may be trafficked, as well as Safeguarding children who may have been trafficked, published by the Department for Education and Home Office in 2011.

In addition, in 2011, a Trafficking Toolkit and accompanying guidance was developed that can assist those in working on cases of suspected child trafficking.

In December 2020, the Home Office updated its statutory guidance to assist first responders and decision makers with the identification and decision making. The document outlines the role of a first responder, the use of children’s services and when and how to refer the child to the national referral mechanism (NRM).

Criticisms of the NRM for children

Since its inception, ECPAT UK has had concerns about the way that the NRM identifies child victims of trafficking (those under 18).  Our research has found evidence of poor decision-making, a worrying lack of child-specific knowledge and child safeguarding, an inappropriate focus on immigration, low awareness of the NRM, a lack of training and a lack of a formal recovery and reflection period and specialist support for children. 

In order to qualify for support, children do not need to go through the NRM. Under the Children Acts (1989 and 2004), local authorities must provide support to any child deemed to be a ‘child in need’ in their area. Potentially trafficked children or unaccompanied children would all meet this threshold and qualify for protection and accommodation under this law.

There are two main routes into the ‘looked after child’ care system via a local authority:

  • Being accommodated under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989; or
  • Being made the subject of a Care Order under section 31 of the Children Act 1989 

Guidance says social workers (and other agencies) should refer children where there are indicators of trafficking to the NRM but support must be provided regardless of this referral or decisions made in the NRM.

Further information on our criticisms of the NRM can be found in our research and reports, including:

A review of what works in multi-agency decision making and the implications for child victims of trafficking

Time to transform: Frontline professionals' views on the National Referral Mechanism

Child trafficking in the UK 2020: A snapshot

The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG), of which ECPAT UK is a member, has published several briefings about the UK's response to its obligations under the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. Within several of these, there is criticism of the way in which the NRM operates with regards to children.

Read the ATMG briefing Proposal for a Revised National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for Children.

ECPAT UK's proposed NRM for children

ECPAT UK published a ‘model NRM’ for children to encourage the UK Government to improve its identification and safeguarding of child victims of trafficking. This recommends the following in order to create an effective system of identification for child victims of trafficking: 

  • A child-rights centred approach that puts children’s best interests at its heart
  • A non-discriminatory model that is purely about the effective identification of trafficked children not conflated with the consideration of the child’s nationality or immigration status
  • Building on existing child protection structures that recognise child trafficking as child abuse and the provision of an individualised, appropriate safeguarding response
  • Recognising that a child cannot give informed consent in relation to exploitation
  • A fair and trust-based model that incorporates the views and experiences of the child and does not base decisions on the perceived credibility of the child’s account alone
  • A model involving skilled and experienced child protection professionals, working together in a multi-agency setting with other statutory agencies, civil society and other relevant organisations
  • A localised model that empowers professionals and drives up awareness and understanding of trafficking and feeds into a centralised intelligence picture to prevent and target the trafficking of children
  • A model that guarantees specialist support for those identified as trafficked or victims of modern slavery