Research Impact


Towards a more evidence-informed approach to tackling human trafficking and exploitation

UCL’s world-leading Security and Crime Science (SCS) researchers are helping build a stronger evidence-base to assist policymakers, crime-prevention professionals and civil society.

African psychologist hold hands of girl patient, close up.

28 April 2022

Research from UCL Security and Crime Sciences (SCS) has provided new evidence to improve responses to human trafficking and exploitation, tackling many myths that surround these complex crimes. 

The need for nuance 

Dr Ella Cockbain and Professor Kate Bowers analysed many thousands of cases of people trafficked in the UK (identified via the UK’s National Referral Mechanism system - the NRM). They found substantial and significant differences between key trafficking ‘types’ (sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and other labour exploitation), emphasising the need for more nuanced, disaggregated responses. 

Amid an overwhelming focus on sex trafficking, Dr Cockbain and Professor Bowers’ systematic review of the evidence base on labour trafficking in Europe identified fundamental knowledge gaps around this complex phenomenon and the effectiveness (or not) of responses to it.  

Elsewhere, Dr Cockbain conducted research with Barnardo’s and NatCen Social Research into sexual exploitation involving boys and young men in the UK. The UCL-led part of the study found that almost 1 in 3 of those affected were male and almost 1 in 5 from ethnic minority backgrounds: groups who are all too often overlooked amid the dominant focus on white female victims. Statistical analyses also showed major differences between male and female service-users, highlighting disparities in responses and the need for a more nuanced and inclusive approach.  

Challenging stereotypes & misinformation 

Dr Cockbain’s study of British trafficking for child sexual exploitation (CSE) (including now infamous cases in Rochdale, Derby and Telford) revealed the opportunity factors, social structures, and group dynamics involved in these crimes. Her work with Dr Waqas Tufail (Leeds Beckett University), delved deeper into ‘Muslim grooming gangs’ narrative associated with CSE and how it can undermine effective child protection. 

SCS research has shown that the ‘Asian/Muslim grooming gangs’ narrative around CSE is inaccurate and corrosive, decentring victims, and empowering racism and violence. Dr Cockbain has challenged stereotypes and misinformation through traditional news and social media, and prominent journalists, politicians and campaigners have recognised her efforts in counteracting these narratives. Testament to the courage involved, the work has also met with negative responses from far-right figures and groups who rely on these harmful narratives for recruitment and mobilisation. 

Informing policy and practice 

As co-chair of the UK’s Modern Slavery Strategy and Implementation Group (MSSIG), Dr Cockbain has introduced SCS findings to Government, devolved administrations, statutory agencies and NGOs. She has promoted more evidence-based working and encouraged the Home Office to produce more carefully-considered interventions and pay attention to potentially harmful consequences for already marginalised groups.  

Dr Cockbain’s contributions to inquiries into trafficking, labour abuse and child exploitation have helped to highlight the complexity and diversity of human trafficking and exploitation. Her knowledge of the ‘organised networks’ involved in CSE further helped to uncover institutional failings through the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Meanwhile, the Home Office’s research into ‘group-based child sexual exploitation’ repeatedly highlighted SCS findings, including how social networks can facilitate abuse, the role of criminal opportunism, the diversity of victims, and the dangers of racialising abuse. 

Dr Cockbain’s work with Professor Bowers on human trafficking as identified through the UK’s NRM system saw her invited to offer advice on reforms to the NRM system and to national policing strategy and data collection. She is credited with contributing to markedly stronger policing data on ‘modern slavery’.  

SCS research on crime scripting of human trafficking/CSE led to the adoption of this practical technique, first in Devon & Cornwall and then across the UK. This development has in turn reportedly strengthened the police’s strategic and tactical responses, leading to harm reduction and both national and international police analysis awards.  

Research synopsis 

Towards a more evidence-informed approach to tackling human trafficking and exploitation 

There are major evidence gaps around many fundamental issues related to human trafficking and exploitation (aka ‘modern slavery’) and myths and misconceptions abound. UCL’s world-leading Security and Crime Science (SCS) researchers are changing this situation, helping build a stronger evidence-base to assist policymakers, crime-prevention professionals and civil society. Research collaborations with the National Crime Agency and others have helped to dispel myths and misinformation associated with ‘modern slavery’, paving the way for better professional practice and more informed policy, media coverage and public discourse.