Academics at the University of Essex said that since conviction rates for modern slavery offences are so low, there could well be more survivors of modern slavery in the criminal justice system than traffickers.
Dr Marija Jovanovic, who led the study, said: “We like to think that countries deal with modern slavery by identifying and protecting survivors, whilst sending perpetrators to prisons.
“The reality is much more complicated, with many survivors being sent to prisons, sometimes for the crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers, instead of being protected.
“Shockingly, given how few convictions there are on modern slavery charges, it’s not out of the question that there might be more survivors than perpetrators in UK prisons.”
Researchers interviewed both survivors and prison officials across the country. They found that insufficient awareness and training of prison staff, resource shortages and barriers for survivors to disclose their stories all hampered efforts to identity modern slavery victims.
They found that there was a disconnect between prisons and the National Referral Mechanism, the national system used to identify modern slavery survivors, with prisons unable to refer people as potential victims.
One survivor told researchers: “When I was inside no one wanted to listen, for so long no one wanted to listen, for so many years I was too scared to talk.”
Another said: “I mean, if [modern slavery survivors] ended up in prison, for one reason or another, it means that they weren’t supported, because I think that’s the quickest way - for us, being victims, it’s the quickest way to put us into prison rather than support us.”
The research was commissioned by the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre. The centre’s Jakub Sobik said it showed that more needed to be done to support modern slavery survivors, including the collection of data.
“Prisons represent a missing piece in the UK’s response to modern slavery,” he said. “This groundbreaking research is the first one to fill this gap, even though there’s clearly more to uncover.”
A Home Office spokesperson said new guidelines and an awareness campaign had recently been rolled out to tackle under-identification of modern slavery cases in the prison system.
“We recognise many people entering custody are themselves victims of crime including modern slavery which is why we have rolled out clear guidelines and extra support for staff to ensure survivors get the help and trauma-informed support they need.”
The Ministry of Justice has been approached for comment.