Dame Sara Thornton supports roundtable on the war in Ukraine and associated risks of human trafficking in the UK



On 7 April 2022 Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC) Dame Sara Thornton joined a roundtable led by UCL’s Dr Ella Cockbain and Dr Aiden Sidebottom, with the support of the IASC office. The roundtable focused on the war in Ukraine and associated risks of human trafficking and exploitation in the UK. It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.


Over a hundred specialists took part, including lawyers, NGOs, academics, civil servants, law enforcement and representatives from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Organization for Migration and the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre. 


A series of expert talks and breakout sessions focused on the emergent issues and particular risks around trafficking and exploitation in relation to the war in Ukraine, and the implications for responses. Remarks covered the immediate steps needed to prevent the current humanitarian crisis from turning into a human trafficking crisis, worrying gaps in responses, and the importance of establishing long-term, collaborative and trauma-informed approaches to support those settling in the UK.


The roundtable will inform a policy-focused report on the issues raised and implications for responses. The report will be published on the IASC website in the next fortnight, with translations into Ukrainian and Russian to follow.


Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton commented:

Refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine – overwhelmingly women and children – are facing serious risk of human trafficking and exploitation along their journey to safety and once they arrive in destination countries. Men and boys in Ukraine are also vulnerable to trafficking. 

“The UK response via the Homes for Ukraine Scheme has demonstrated the public’s willingness to assist and support those who have been forcibly displaced. As this scheme and other initiatives progress it is vitally important that we put systematic measures in place to ensure that the risks of exploitation do not become a reality. The immediate response is important, but we also need to think about the long term. Whilst there are clear frustrations about slow visa application processes, the ability to gather data and conduct checks means the UK should be well positioned to protect individuals in the long term. 

“I was pleased to support the roundtable earlier this month, which gathered a focused cohort of individuals and organisations well placed to share expertise and good practice as well as new information and first-hand observations of the evolving crisis. I hope that the resulting paper, once published, will be used to inform policy and practitioner responses across the UK as we continue to welcome Ukrainian refugees and work to support and safeguard them.”



Dr Ella Cockbain, the project lead and Associate Professor at UCL (Department of Security and Crime Science), commented:

As Russia continues to inflict devastation on Ukraine, there are very real risks of increases in human trafficking and exploitation among those fleeing the war. While recognising that these concerns are part of a much bigger picture of harm, decisive steps are needed to mitigate these risks in the UK and beyond.

“Contributions at this roundtable very clearly highlighted the inherent dangers of human trafficking and exploitation in situations of mass displacement. Participants also raised considerable concerns about the UK’s domestic policy response to date, highlighting worrying issues around confusion, lack of accountability and major gaps in safeguarding and support. The entrenched harms of the hostile environment further complicate the situation, despite a public outpouring of support for Ukraine.

”There is a clear need for nuanced, collaborative strategic planning to address these risks and provide effective support to all Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in the UK, including those already here and falling through the gaps in the current visa systems.”



The report will be available under embargo to media the day before its release. Please contact e.cockbain@ucl.ac.uk for a copy.





Notes to editors

  • Part 4 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 created the role of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. The Commissioner has a UK-wide remit to encourage good practice in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of slavery and human trafficking offences and the identification of victims.
  • The Commissioner is given an annual budget with which to appoint staff and carry out her duties. She is accountable through her strategic plan and annual reports, which the Secretary of State lays before Parliament, setting out the extent to which objectives and priorities are achieved. Her Strategic Plan 2019 – 2021 was launched in October 2019 and her Annual Report 2020 – 2021 was launched in September 2020.
  • Dame Sara Thornton was appointed as the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner by the Secretary of State following consultation with the Scottish Ministers and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland. She took up post at the beginning of May 2019 and her appointment is for three years.

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