There is no typical victim of Human Trafficking (a crime that is also called by some modern slavery), but in many instances, it is expected that some form of vulnerability is a trigger, including economic vulnerabilities or being a member of a socially excluded group such as the homeless. A study by Covenant House Study (2017), which interviewed 911 homeless persons aged 17 to 25, found that nearly one in five was a victim of human trafficking.

In England and Wales, as more cases of human trafficking are uncovered, the authorities learn about homeless persons being recruited.

In a recent case cited by the Metro, a family forced homeless men into slavery for over two decades. It is worth noting that homelessness is a prevailing issue in the UK. In 2015, the Department for Communities
and Local Government stated that research throughout the country had found a total of 3,569 rough sleepers on a given night.

Why are homeless persons at risk of trafficking? Predominantly, it is their economic situation that is taken advantage of by traffickers. Those on the street are approached by strangers who offer an opportunity for a job, at times the offer comes with accommodation. Charity workers in England report that homeless people as a group are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking: Reuters report that ‘People sleeping rough are increasingly being targeted by traffickers around homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and support groups, and tricked into modern slavery.’ In addition, homeless people can have other vulnerabilities that make them exposed to trafficking: irregular migration status, alcohol and drug dependencies, mental health issues and loneliness.

The relationship between human trafficking and homelessness also exists in a different context. On identification by relevant stakeholders (e.g., the police, local authorities, charity workers), victims are granted a reflection period. This is a time during which they ought to have access to accommodation and support services.

This is not an indefinite period and many of those leaving a safe house end up on the streets. The report "Life Beyond the Safe House for Survivors of Modern Slavery in London," clearly showcases the lack of service support after victims leave their safe house.


It is important to recognise that human trafficking is not just a problem of crime, immigration or even solely Human Rights, rather, it is interdisciplinary in nature.

Yet across the EU, evidence of this is scarce; national policymaking responses to human trafficking are predominantly managed by legislation in the sphere of criminal law or immigration; both of which, even if combined, are not entirely suited to the problem.

The statement that responses to trafficking have been incomplete and even problematic is so often affirmed that it becomes almost embarrassing to keep stating the obvious. However, our immoderate cynicism can be quenched by policy-making theory, which suggests that policymaking is incremental in advancement. Easton’s policy-making theory is a system responding to the needs of the environment, whereby that environment is understood quite broadly, with various inputs.

Essentially, however, much starts with identifying a problem. In this case the problem of trafficked persons experiencing homelessness and homeless persons being at the risk of (re)trafficking. Of course, the identification of a problem does not automatically lead to a policy solution, especially as policymakers consider the diverging opinion as to appropriate solutions and competing interests, all co-existing against a background of limited resources.

With a complex case such as human trafficking, there will be a great number of interpretations and suggestions, particularly as the topic evokes moral, criminal justice, migration, and other social concerns. Some may argue that many of the homeless are irregular migrants and ought to be deported, whilst others may believe the best approach is to raise awareness amongst NGOs working with the homeless about the issue of human trafficking.

To add to the complexities there is also the persuasive theory put forward by Edelman, that policymakers purposively mis-define social issues in order to redirect focus from the bigger issues of social, economic and political space. With regard to the homelessness and human trafficking relationship, the biggest issues could be said to be: cuts to victims’ welfare, lack of structured, uninterrupted victim support, obliviousness to gender perspectives as well as inappropriate housing situation.

With regard to housing, it is particularly acknowledged that there is a serious shortage of social housing. In the UK, this is acutely evident as many homeless people have no choice but to rent from private landlords.

This causes additional issues chiefly as renting from private landlords is costlier as they require tenants to pay deposits and rent in advance. Additionally, private landlords think it is too uncertain to rent to people receiving housing benefits or due to their homelessness.

The case of England and Wales

In 2015 the Modern Slavery Act came into force and showed a capacity of the legislator to shift the context of the problem from criminal justice to include other domains; victim assistance and corporate responsibility. However, the new legislation lacks the nuance to recognise the relationship between vulnerabilities such as homelessness and human trafficking. Yet today, in 2018, further progress is developing.

The Homeless Reduction Act aims to significantly reform England’s homelessness legislation. The Act seeks to modify and extend existing homelessness law through:

  • Improving the advice and information available about homelessness and the prevention of homelessness;
  • Extending the period ‘threatened with homelessness’ from 28 days to 56 days;
  • Introducing new duties to prevent and relieve homelessness for all eligible people, regardless of priority need, intentionality and local connection;
  • Introducing assessments and personalised housing plans, setting out the actions housing authorities and individuals will take to secure accommodation;
  • Requiring housing authorities to provide homelessness services to all those affected, not just those who have ‘priority need’;

Whilst the Act, which includes 13 sections, does not elude to crimes of exploitation - modern slavery and/or human trafficking - the "Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities," includes a whole chapter; Modern Slavery Chapter 25.

The Guide although not statuary, provides an indication that the government is finally beginning to make the much-needed connection between the two phenomena.

Falling back on Easton’s theory of inputs, it is worth acknowledging the role of Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner who in 2016 commissioned research to gain a better understanding of human trafficking within the domain of homelessness. The result was a report produced by The Passage NGO entitled "Understanding and Responding to Modern Slavery within the Homelessness Sector." The ethos of the contained recommendations can be found in the "Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities."

The following contents of the Guide are of particular interest: Paragraph 26.6 states that in all cases decision makers should be aware to the possibility that applicants for assistance are victims of modern slavery or are otherwise vulnerable.

Particular care should be paid to children, especially where there are doubts about the relationship with any purported guardian. Here a formalised process could have been made, whereby the tools used by decision makers and also homeless organizations ought to enable the identification of someone as a victim of human trafficking. For instance by having systems that have fields that record data specifically related to potential signs of human trafficking.

Paragraph 25.16 emphasises that housing authorities should refer any individual they suspect to be a victim of modern slavery to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). Perhaps the most important is paragraph 27.17, which identifies that a victim of trafficking or modern slavery ‘may have a priority need for accommodation if they are assessed as being vulnerable according to section 189(1)(c) of the 1996 Act.

In assessing whether they are vulnerable a housing authority should take into account advice from specialist agencies providing services to the applicant, such as their assigned support provider under the NRM...’ The Code then echoes what has been argued at length, that co-operation is needed. Paragraph 25.19 states that ‘housing authorities may find it helpful to establish local, joint working arrangements with NRM support providers where appropriate to help identify people at risk of homelessness as early as possible and maximise the opportunities to prevent homelessness.’ It is an ambitious suggestion with far-reaching normative meanings. However, here questions remain. How should such working arrangements look and can they obtain funding for this?

Without suggesting that the current progress is exhaustive and that efforts for improvement can be laid to rest, the "Code of Guidance for Local Authorities" speaks to a slightly improved world order. Over the last few years, alongside developing a better understanding of human trafficking and its relationship with other social issues such as homelessness, the approach to addressing the crime has begun to cross boundaries. The code also explains the political position on the issue. Local authorities, who carefully read the document, will find a clear indication that it is time for them to acknowledge that human trafficking is intertwined with homelessness.

Notwithstanding the praise just given, a word of caution.

The "Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities" does more than just offer solutions, by its authority it implies what is held to be problematic by the policymaker. Namely that local authorities are currently blind to the relationship between homelessness and human trafficking. This problem is mis-defined, for, in fact, the problem runs deeper than that.

The issue is not that there is not enough awareness raising campaigns or that co-operation isn’t sufficiently established and strong. There are bigger socio-economic causes, linked with neoliberal economic governance that implicate the state and consumers. When we think about homelessness we should be addressing how these persons got there in the first place – how did our economic structure fail them? What about housing, why is there not enough social housing?

In terms of human trafficking we ought to raise questions around the role of companies relying on exploited labour to meet the demand of low-cost production and service, or how our migration policies chain migrants to a state of vulnerability and thus possible exploitation. Likewise, rather than showing society images of shackled persons to arouse their morality and raise their awareness of human trafficking, we ought to ask about their role as consumers who insist on consuming at a low price.

Importantly, however, we should not be asking all these questions separately but looking at the underlying problem of human trafficking and its relationship to homelessness and other social issues as one. Including such a complex framing of the problems will reveal solutions that are beyond what is proposed in the Modern Slavery Act, the Homeless Reduction Act or the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities.

Thus, whilst the new policy is welcome, and even ought to stand as inspiration for other nations, it is not enough, and further research is needed to explore solutions that would address human trafficking and homelessness problems at their core.