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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.

What is the National Referral Mechanism?
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 UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) collects data about victims. This information aims to help build a clearer picture about the scope of human trafficking in the UK.

UKHTC logo

Why refer a child into the NRM?
Referring children into the NRM encourages the sharing of information between agencies and can help to ensure an appropriate safeguarding response.

It also helps the UK to collect evidence and build an understanding of the patterns of child trafficking. This helps to shape policy and can aid police investigations into trafficking.

How does the NRM work?
First responders

To be referred to the NRM, potential victims of trafficking must first be referred to one of the UK’s two competent authorities - the UKHTC or UK Border Agency (see below). This initial referral will generally be handled by an authorised agency, such as a police force, the UKBA, Social Services or some NGOs. The referring authority is known as the ‘first responder’.

First responder agencies include:

SOCA / UKHTC Local Authorities
UK Border Agency POPPY Project
TARA Project (Scotland) Migrant Helpline
Kalayaan Medaille Trust
Salvation Army Gangmasters Licensing Authority
UK police forces NSPCC/CTAIL
Local Authority Children’s Services Barnardo's
Northern Ireland DHSS Northern Ireland Public Safety
Unseen  Refugee Council

The first responder completes a referral form (England and Wales / Scotland and Northern Ireland) (child in this instance) to pass the case to the CA. All completed NRM forms are sent to the UKHTC. The UKHTC will then determine which CA will deal with the case and will forward the papers if needed.

Completed forms should be sent to the UKHTC Competent Authority via e-mail at or by fax to 0870 496 5534. Up-to-date information on the UKHTC and NRM is available here.

Guidance for first responders
In August 2013, the Home Office produced guidance to assist first responders with the referral process. The document, National Referral Mechanism: guidance for child first responders, 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).

When to complete an NRM referral form?
All cases where trafficking is suspected should be referred unless there are clear reasons why this would not be appropriate.

Similarly 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.

Identifying a child victim of trafficking
In February 2011, the London Safeguarding Children Board launched the new London Safeguarding Trafficked Children Guidance and Toolkit. These documents will help professionals working with children with early identification and assessment of child victims of trafficking.

London Safeguarding Trafficked Children Toolkit

London Safeguarding Trafficked Children Guidance

Competent Authorities
In the UK the two CAs are:
1 - The UKHTC, which deals with referrals from the police, local authorities, and NGOs.

2 - The UK Border Agency, which deals with referrals identified as part of the immigration process, for example where trafficking may be an issue as part of an asylum claim.

Once a referral has been made, trained experts in the CA will assess the case and make a decision on whether an individual is a victim of trafficking. There are several steps in this process:

Stage One – 'Reasonable Grounds'
The Government states that the NRM team has a target date of five working days from receipt of referral in which to decide whether there are reasonable grounds to believe the individual is a potential victim of human trafficking. This may involve seeking additional information from the first responder or from specialist NGOs or social services. The threshold at the Reasonable Grounds stage for the case manager is “From the information available so far I believe but cannot prove” that the individual is a potential victim of trafficking.

If the decision is affirmative then the potential victim will be

  • Allocated a place within Ministry of Justice safe house accommodation, if required
  • Granted a recovery and reflection period of 45 days. This allows the victim to begin to recover from their ordeal and to reflect on what they want to do next, for example, co-operate with police enquiries, return home etc. Note - this can be extended.

The referred person and the first responder are both notified of the decision by letter.

Stage Two – Conclusive Decision
During the 45-day recovery and reflection period the CA gathers further information relating to the referral from the first responder and other agencies.

This additional information is used to make a conclusive decision on whether the referred person is a victim of human trafficking. The CA’s target for a conclusive decision is within the 45-day recovery and reflection period.

The case manager’s threshold for a Conclusive Decision is that on the balance of probability “it is more likely than not” that the individual is a victim of human trafficking.

The first responder and the potential victim will both be notified of the decision. If the referred person is conclusively identified as a victim of trafficking, what happens next will depend on their wishes.

What happens next?
The victim may be granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK for one year to allow them to co-operate fully in any police investigation and subsequent prosecution. The period of discretionary leave can be extended if required.

If a victim of trafficking is not involved in the criminal justice process, UKBA may consider a grant of discretionary leave to remain in the UK, dependent on the victim’s personal circumstances.

If the victim is from outside the European Economic Area, the victim can receive help and financial assistance to return home through the UK Border Agency Assisted Voluntary Return of Irregular Migrants (AVRIM) process. If they are an EEA national, UKHTC will put them in touch with their embassy and any relevant NGOs who may be able to help.

What if the referred person is not found to be a victim ?
According to the Government, if at any stage the referred person is confirmed not to be a victim of trafficking then dependent on the circumstances they may be referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency – the relevant police force or the UK Border Agency.

If it is decided by the UKBA that the person was not trafficked, and there are no other circumstances that would give them a right to live in the UK, they will be offered support to voluntarily return to their country of origin. The person can also be offered support to return to their country if they have been trafficked and do not wish to stay in the UK.

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

- NRM Statistics End of Year Summary 2015

- NRM Statistics January to March 2015

- NRM Statistics January to March 2012

- NRM Statistics July to Sept 2011 

- NRM Statistical Data April 2009 to June 2011

Criticisms of the NRM
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 'Trafficked Children'.

Read the ATMG briefing 'Discrimination in the identification process'.


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ECPAT UK is the leading expert voice on child trafficking in the UK and we offer a comprehensive training programme focused on safeguarding young people from trafficking, modern slavery, and transnational abuse. To find out more visit our training page

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