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Too little, too late: Psychological Support for Victims of Trafficking for Labour Exploitation in the UK

April 21, 2016

A new report commissioned by the Department of Health has found high levels of mental illness amongst victims of human trafficking in the UK. However, and despite the Government’s stated commitment to support victims of modern slavery, recent FLEX research found that victims are not receiving enough psychological support. Long waits and lack of funding for counselling services mean that victims of human trafficking often cannot access these vital services. Those victims who do receive psychological support are getting too little of it, and often too late, to fully recover from their traumatic experiences. The findings of this research, as well as other difficulties experienced by organisations across Europe in providing or accessing support for their clients, have been discussed at a conference hosted by FLEX in London this week.

A Crucial Need

A new study led by King’s College and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that of 150 people trafficked to the UK from more than 30 different countries, nearly 80% of women and 40% of men were suffering high levels of depression, anxiety and PTSD an average of 16 months after escaping exploitation.

FLEX research backs up these findings, and demonstrates the importance of early access to long term psychological support. Survivors of trafficking interviewed by FLEX reported feeling depressed, upset, and having disturbed sleeping patterns before taking up counselling. As a result of the sessions, survivors felt they had gained a better understanding of their symptoms, and reported feeling better, less anxious and more confident about the future:

“I feel very good about this support. It is helping, somehow, because now I can trust, I start to trust other people, which for me is a very good thing because I am starting to get better, to feel more confident, and I am still hoping that everything is going to be fine after those sessions.”

Long waits for urgent services

Victims of human trafficking are in need of urgent psychological support. However, they are often made to wait for long periods of time to access counselling services through the National Health Service (NHS). There are long waitlists for these services and the needs of victims are not prioritised. The situation is worse for female victims, who have to wait until the NHS can provide them with female counsellors and interpreters. A female survivor of trafficking described her experience to FLEX:

“In the beginning I ask my doctor. He offered me wellbeing services, I did two sessions with them, but by phone, not in person, because I was waiting for a female psychologist and a female interpreter, but I don’t know what happened with them.”

Not enough funding for victims of trafficking

Victims of trafficking have a right to receive psychological support. While in theory trafficking victims can access counselling services through the official support system —the National Referral Mechanism— in reality funding restrictions limit the availability of support. As a result, the number of sessions of counselling a victim can receive are limited, and victims of trafficking often do not get enough psychological support to address their mental health needs. Lack of funding also affects the quality of the psychological support. Because victims of trafficking currently only get support for 45 days, counsellors are forced to work quickly to stabilise victims and do not have enough time to fully address their problems. At the end of these 45 days, victims are left without support and are often not ready to deal with their trauma and psychological needs on their own.

Victims FLEX has spoken to insist on the importance and utility of counselling, and expressed their need for more sessions in order to recover from the traumatic experiences suffered. When asked whether they would like to receive more counselling support, one victim said:

 “We would like but our counselling, the program is finished.  When we see the counselling, it helps us because it was advising us, telling us do this. But we still have this thing in our heart that can’t go away, like me I don’t sleep, bad dreams always whenever I try. ‘Cos I fight through hard life […] many things many things I have had to forget, I don’t even feel like eating. More counselling is better.”

More needs to be done

Despite growing evidence of victims’ desperate need, the psychological support available to victims of human trafficking is still very limited in the UK. FLEX’s research shows that new models to support victims of human trafficking are needed, that are both sufficiently funded and tailored to the specific circumstances and emotional needs of victims of trafficking. Support for victims of trafficking with complex needs should be long-term, beyond the current 45 days, and should empower victims to recover, move on, and stay safe.