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How can I tell if someone is a victim of modern slavery?

Please see our section on what trafficking and slavery is, and how to work with victims. It is always a good idea to go back to the legal definitions if you are ever unsure if your client might be a survivor of modern slavery.

The UK government acknowledges in the Modern Slavery Statutory Guidance that it is not up to a victim to identify themselves, it is the job of frontline professionals (First Responders) to consider:

The presence of any indicators of modern slavery, including for example the non-verbal presentation of the victim, what the victim says, situational and environmental factors and all available general and specific evidence regarding known patterns of modern slavery.

The UK government also recognises in the guidance that this is not an easy task:

In practice it is not easy to identify a potential victim – there are many different physical and psychological elements to be considered as detailed below. For a variety of reasons, potential victims of modern slavery may also:

  • be reluctant to come forward with information
  • not recognise themselves as having been trafficked or enslaved
  • tell their stories with obvious errors and/or omissions.

In determining whether a person has been subjected to slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour, regard may be had to all the circumstances including; any of the person’s personal circumstances, such as the person’s age, the person’s family relationships, and any physical or mental disability or illness, that significantly impair the person’s ability to protect themselves from being subjected to slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour.

Even if you are not a First Responder, it is important to be aware of indicators that someone may be a victim of modern slavery, so that they can be advised, supported or helped to contact the UK authorities to be referred into the National Referral Mechanism.

Here is a list of some common signs or indicators telling you that someone might be a victim of trafficking, forced labour or slavery.

These lists come from the UK government checklists (Section 3 and Annex A of the UK government’s Modern Slavery Statutory Guidance). They are not exhaustive but they give you an idea of what to be aware of. Here are the current indicators listed in the Modern Slavery Statutory Guidance:


General indicators. Victims may:
  • believe that they must work against their will
  • be unable to leave their work environment or home environment
  • show signs that their movements are being controlled
  • feel that they cannot leave
  • show fear or anxiety
  • se subjected to violence or threats of violence against themselves or against their family members and loved ones
  • suffer injuries that appear to be the result of an assault
  • suffer injuries or impairments typical of certain jobs or control measures
  • suffer injuries that appear to be the result of the application of control measures
  • be distrustful of the authorities
  • be threatened with being handed over to the authorities
  • be afraid of revealing their immigration status
  • not be in possession of their passports or other travel or identity documents, as those documents are being held by someone else
  • come from a place known to be a source of human trafficking
  • have had the fees for their transport to the country of destination paid for by facilitators, whom they must pay back by working or providing services in the destination
  • have false identity or travel documents (or none at all)
  • be found in or connected to a type of location likely to be used for exploiting people
  • be unfamiliar with the local language
  • not know their home or work address
  • allow others to speak for them when addressed directly
  • act as if they were instructed by someone else
  • be forced, threatened or deceived into working in poor conditions
  • be disciplined through punishment
  • be unable to negotiate working conditions
  • receive little or no payment
  • have no access to their earnings
  • work excessively long hours over long periods
  • not have any days off
  • live in poor or substandard accommodations
  • have no access to medical care
  • have limited or no social interaction
  • have limited contact with their families or with people outside of their immediate environment
  • be unable to communicate freely with others
  • be under the perception that they are bonded by debt
  • be in a situation of dependence
  • have acted on the basis of false promises

Physical indicators of modern slavery may include:

  • physical injuries – these may have unclear explanations as to how or when they were sustained, they may be untreated, or partially treated, or there may be multiple or unusual scars or healed fractures
  • work related injuries – often through inadequate personal protective equipment or poor health and safety
  • physical consequences of captivity, neglect, poor environmental conditions – for example, infections including tuberculosis, chest infections or skin infections, malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies or anaemia
  • neurological symptoms – for example, headaches, dizzy spells, poor memory, poor concentration, problems with cognition, post traumatic epilepsy
  • dental problems – from physical abuse and/or neglect of dental hygiene
  • deterioration of pre-existing chronic medical conditions – these may be untreated (or poorly treated) chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension or cancers
  • cardiovascular or respiratory symptoms – often chest pain, palpitations, breathlessness (may be due to anxiety, but poor health in victims means that such symptoms need exploring)
  • gastrointestinal symptoms – abdominal pain or health conditions related to swallowed, internally placed or ruptured packets of illegal substances
  • non-specific symptoms – fatigue, weight loss, fainting
  • chronic pain – this can be from specific injuries or may be more generalised – “all over body pain”. Exacerbated by lack of sleep and stress. May be psychosomatic
  • medically unexplained symptoms – symptoms without an identifiable physical cause are common, and can be non-specific such as headaches, dizziness or back pain, or may be related to trauma to a particular part of the body, for example, abdominal pain in rape victims
  • disfigurements – cutting, burning, or branding may be used as a means of punishment or to indicate ownership by exploiters. Victims are sometimes forced to undergo cosmetic procedures, for example, breast implantation, use of skin lightening creams. Disfigurement can also be the result of self-harm and attempted suicide
  • post-operative pain – infection or scarring from organ harvesting, particularly of a kidney

Psychological indicators of modern slavery may include:

  • expression – of fear or anxiety
  • depression – lack of interest in engaging in activities, lack of interest in engaging with other individuals, hopelessness
  • isolation or alienation
  • attachment and identity issues – can create detachments from others or an over-dependence (or both). This can include a dependency on exploiters
  • an inability to regulate emotions – for example a persistent shifting between sadness, forgiveness, anger, aggression, frustration and/or emotional detachment or emotional withdrawal
  • difficulties with relationships – difficulties with trusting others (either lack of trust or too trusting) causing difficulties in relationships and difficulties assessing/addressing risks or warning signs in relationships
  • loss of autonomy – for example difficulty in making simple decisions, tendency to acquiesce to the views/desires of others
  • memory difficulties – either problems with concentration/attention or poor memory for past events e.g. ‘gaps’ or confusion about events
  • dissociative episodes and re-experiencing phenomena such as flashbacks
  • other indicators may include:
    • hostility
    • aggression
    • difficulty concentrating
    • self-harm
    • suicidal ideation
    • an attitude of guilt, self-blame, shame or low self-esteem
    • psychosis or the presence of hallucinations and delusions
    • substance misuse and addictions

Situational and environmental indicators of modern slavery

Indicators may include:

  • withheld passports or identity documents, contracts, payslips, bank information, health records
  • lack of information about rights as workers in the UK as well as support and advice services
  • lack of information about a person’s rights as a visitor in the UK or a lack of knowledge about the area they live in the UK
  • acting as if coerced or controlled by another
  • going missing for periods
  • fearful and emotional about their family or dependents
  • limited English, for example only having vocabulary relating to their exploitative situation
  • restriction of movement (noting that victims are not often ‘locked- up’ but movement can be restricted) or being held in isolation
  • withholding wages (including deductions from wages)
  • debt bondage
  • abusive working and/or living conditions
  • excessive overtime

Child specific indicators and indicators relating to specific types of modern slavery can be found in Annex A of the UK government’s Modern Slavery Statutory Guidance.  


UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) list

International Labour Office (ILO) Indicators of Forced Labour

ILO indicators of trafficking

ILO e-learning course (free!) on child labour

National Referral Mechanism forms and guidance (The government documents used when a victim is referred into the system for identification)

Modern Slavery Statutory Guidance

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