UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science


Human Trafficking, Smuggling and Exploitation Research Group


Our focus with this research group is on building a stronger and more nuanced evidence-base on human trafficking, smuggling and exploitation in their various forms (including what is increasingly referred to as ‘modern slavery’). These are broad umbrella terms that encompass a wide variety of complex and often contested areas. As such, we recognise the need for nuance and specificity in analyses and interventions. We are particularly interested in applied research that advances understanding and supports more informed, effective and ethical responses. We work across qualitative, quantitative and mixed-methods research, depending on a particular project’s aims, scope and research questions. We have a strong track record for high-quality research that is rigorous, context-sensitive, and informed by solid domain understanding. We have worked with various organisations across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Our research has been influential in informing policy, practice and public debate, including through challenging myths and misinformation. The real-world impact of our research has been recognised through a world-leading impact case study in the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021). If you have any questions about this research group or would like to get in touch about a potential collaboration, please contact the group lead Dr Ella Cockbain (e.cockbain@ucl.ac.uk).

Funded Projects

We have a strong track record in securing funding for research in this space, with £2.2 million in research funding since 2013 for projects related to human trafficking and exploitation in various forms, including two major fellowships (a Wellcome Early Career Fellowship and an ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellowship). A selection of current and past projects is included below. In addition to these funded projects, we have also supported many students to secure competitive PhD scholarships.

Current Projects

  • Examining the social, spatial and temporal systems behind human trafficking (Principal Investigator Dr Ella Cockbain, 2019-24): Funded under the ESRC’s Transnational Organised Crime call, this £456,000 project investigates the structure of trafficking networks and spatial and temporal patterns in identified and suspected trafficking in the UK. The project takes a largely quantitative approach, closely informed by extensive domain knowledge and sensitive to contextual nuance. It draws extensively on sensitive data from the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and the Modern Slavery Helpline, kindly provided by project partners the National Crime Agency (NCA) and Unseen. A key focus for the grant is also about encouraging more nuanced, evidence-informed policy and practice in the anti-trafficking space. The team for this grant includes co-investigators Professor Kate Bowers, Dr Lisa Tompson, Dr Aiden Sidebottom and Dr Matt Ashby, and Research Assistant Dr Donia Khanegi (all UCL Security and Crime Science). More information on this project available here
  • Precarious work and labour market abuses (co-Principal Investigators Dr Ella Cockbain and Dr Chris Pósch, 2022-24): Co-funded by the ESRC and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), this £742,000 project was commissioned by the Director of Labour Market Enforcement to assess the scale and nature of labour market non-compliance in the UK. This mixed-methods study focuses specifically on the experiences of people in precarious work. The cornerstone is a large-scale representative survey, administered by Kantar as an associated study to the Understanding Society survey. Those results will inform complementary in-depth interviews with precarious workers, and focus groups with workers and employers. The team includes co-investigators Dr Sam Scott (University of Gloucestershire), Professor Ben Bradford (UCL Security and Crime Science) and Professor Virginia Mantouvalou (UCL Laws), and Research Assistant Jack Beadsworth (PhD candidate at UCL Laws), with support from leading NGO FLEX (Focus on Labour Exploitation). For more information, please see this blogpost or the project webpage.
  • Wellcome Early Career Fellowship (Principal Investigator Dr Alys McAlpine, 2022-27): This prestigious five year fellowship (£610,000) was awarded to Dr McAlpine to investigate ways of strengthening violence prevention through innovative and interdisciplinary intervention modelling. Taking human trafficking as the focus, this project brings together public health, crime science and complexity science to advance violence prevention research. The fellowship is co-hosted by the UCL Institute for Global Health (IGH) and UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science. More information on the project is available here.
  • Exploring policing practices in London in relation to sex work (Principal Investigator Dr Jyoti Belur, 2022-23): Funded by the Metropolitan Police Service (£50,000 excl. VAT), this project was commissioned to improve understanding of how the MPS currently polices in relation to sex work, identifying tensions, challenges, areas of good and bad practice, and recommendations for change. The project involves in-depth interviews with both policing and non-policing stakeholders, including sex worker-led organisations. While we explicitly do not conceptualise sex work as ‘exploitation’ in and of itself, the overlap in policing of sex work and of human trafficking/’modern slavery’ brings this project into the research group’s scope. The research team includes co-investigator Dr Ella Cockbain, and Research Assistant Michele Bal (both UCL Security and Crime Science).

Past Projects

Examples of key past projects iclude:

  • An ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellowship for research into human trafficking for labour exploitation (Principal Investigator Dr Ella Cockbain, Mentor Prof Kate Bowers, 2014-18). This £204,000 fellowship drew extensively on both qualitative and quantitative data from the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), provided by the National Crime Agency. It also included a systematic review of the evidence-base on labour trafficking.
  • An initial analysis of precarious work in the UK, using data from the Understanding Society survey (Principal Investigator Dr Chris Pósch, 2019-20). Commissioned by the Director of Labour Market Enforcement (DLME) and funded by BEIS at £10,000 excl. VAT.
  • A scoping study of how best to measure the scale and nature of labour market non-compliance in the UK (Principal Investigator Dr Ella Cockbain, 2018-19). Commissioned by the Director of Labour Market Enforcement (DLME) and funded by BEIS at £25,000 excl. VAT.
  • A mixed-methods study into the sexual exploitation of boys and young men in the UK (Principal Investigator Dr Carol McNaughton-Nicholls, 2013-14). Funded by the Nuffield Foundation (£97,000), this study was a collaboration between NatCen Social Research, UCL and Barnardo’s. The UCL team (led by Dr Ella Cockbain) was responsible for a rapid evidence assessment and large-scale quantitative analysis of gendered differences in child sexual exploitation (CSE).

We have a wide range of researchers working in this space, with complementary skills and experience. Brief biographies are provided below.

  • Dr Ella Cockbain (research group lead): Ella is an Associate Professor in Security and Crime Science at UCL, and a visiting research fellow at Leiden University. Her research focuses primarily on human trafficking, child sexual exploitation, and labour market abuses. She is committed to nuanced, evidence-informed and context-sensitive responses to these complex social phenomena, and has done a lot of work around challenging misconceptions and misinformation. She is the former co-chair of the UK’s Modern Slavery Strategy and Implementation Group on prevention, and a current member. A previous ‘Future Research Leaders’ fellow of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Ella currently leads two major studies: one focusing on human trafficking (ESRC-funded), the other on labour market abuses (with co-lead Chris Pósch, funded by the ESRC and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). She supervises numerous PhDs relating to human trafficking, smuggling and exploitation, and is leading the new teaching module on these topics.
  • Dr Matt Ashby: Matt is a Lecturer in Crime Science. His research focuses on crime analysis, how crime concentrates in time and space, and how police can use data to solve crime problems. Matt’s research has been funded by organisations including the College of Policing and UK Home Office. Matt is a former police officer, has a PhD in Crime Science and is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He teaches crime mapping and data analysis, as well as training police practitioners on problem solving. Matt has worked on research with Barnardo’s into child sexual exploitation (funded by the Nuffield Foundation) and is currently a co-investigator on a major ESRC-funded grant on human trafficking, for which he leads on the analysis of data from the UK’s NRM (National Referral Mechanism) system.
  • Dr Jyoti Belur: Jyoti is an Associate Professor in Policing at the UCL Department of Security and Crime Science. She qualified in Economics at the University of Mumbai, and worked there as a lecturer before serving as a senior officer in the Indian Police Service. She has undertaken research for the UK Home Office, College of Policing, ESRC and the Metropolitan Police Service, and as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow. She is the programme convenor for the BSc in Professional Policing. She is currently a member of the London Policing Ethics Panel and the HMICFRS Academic Reference Group. A qualitative research methods expert, Jyoti’s research interests include policing, police training and education, evaluations, and violence against women and children. She is currently supervising PhD and Masters research projects on the policing response to human trafficking, and leading research on London policing responses to sex work and trafficking of adults for sexual exploitation.
  • Professor Ben Bradford: Ben is Professor of Global City Policing at UCL and Director of the Centre for Global City Policing. His research concentrates in particular on questions of trust, legitimacy, cooperation and compliance in justice settings. He also has interests in aspects of ‘street-level’ police practice, the use of new technologies in policing, the ethics of policing, and perhaps above all the effect of police activity on those who experience it. He has significant experience of the use of surveys and experimental methods in these areas of research, and has worked extensively with police organisations across the UK, as well as a wide range of other governmental and non-governmental actors. He is currently a co-investigator on a major grant assessing the scale and nature of labour-market non-compliance affecting precarious workers in the UK, commissioned by the Director of Labour Market Enforcement and building on earlier UCL-led projects in this space.
  • Professor Kate Bowers: Kate is the Head of Department of UCL Security and Crime Science and Director of the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science. Kate’s research focuses on using data analytics and multi-disciplinary techniques to develop strategies for the prevention and detection of crime. Her particular interests lie in using analysis to predict crime patterns and developing the evidence base on what works to reduce crime. She has worked on several research projects related to human trafficking, including as a mentor on Ella Cockbain’s past ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellowship on labour trafficking, and as a co-investigator and the deputy director on the current ESRC grant on human trafficking.

  • Dr Donia Khanegi: Donia has an academic background in forensic and crime science, with research interests including organised crime, drug trafficking, drug policy, human trafficking, and behaviour change. Having recently completed her PhD on the negative societal impacts of the illicit drug trade and drug related behaviour change, Donia now works as a research fellow at the JDI. She is currently working on a major ESRC-funded human trafficking grant, applying social network analysis to investigate the structure and organisation of labour trafficking networks in the UK.

  • Dr Alys McAlpine: Alys is a Wellcome Trust Fellow (2022-2027) researching human trafficking prevention in the UK. Her background is in public health approaches to violence prevention. In 2021, she completed an ESRC-funded PhD at the Gender, Violence and Health Center (GVHC) at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), in collaboration with Freedom Fund. Her thesis applied social network analysis and agent-based modelling to explore social and intermediary networks facilitating labour migration in the Myanmar-Thailand corridor. Building on this work, she and colleagues received an ESRC methods innovation grant (2021-2022) to further explore the use of complex system modelling for violence prevention intervention development. Her current research is exploring how to integrate public health and crime science approaches to prevent human trafficking and respond to the mental health needs of trafficking survivors in the UK.

  • Dr Krisztián Pósch: Chris is a Lecturer in Crime Science at the Department of Security and Crime Science at UCL, and a visiting research fellow at the Department of Methodology at the London School of Economics. He has a background in psychology, research methods, and statistics. His methodological interest lies in employing innovative causal inference techniques and survey methods to address real-world problems. Much of his work focuses on public perception of the police and the impact of police practices and interventions. Currently, Chris is the work package leader of the quantitative branch of the TASERD project (‘An independent research programme on the causes of ethnic/racial disparities in the police use of Taser’) funded by the College of Policing, the lead evaluator for the ‘Awareness Academy’ programme funded by the Metropolitan Police, and the co-lead with Ella Cockbain of the ‘Assessment of the Scale and Nature of Labour Market Non-compliance in the UK’ funded by the ESRC and BEIS.

  • Dr Aiden Sidebottom: Aiden Sidebottom is an Associate Professor in the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London. His main research interests are problem-oriented policing, crime analysis and crime prevention. Aiden is a member of the academic advisory board for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services and a judge for the Goldstein Award for excellence in problem-oriented policing. Aiden is a co-investigator on the current ESRC-funded project on human trafficking, where he leads on the engagement and impact strand. He has also worked extensively on the issue of missing children, which intersects with risks of exploitation.

  • Dr Lisa Tompson: Lisa is a Senior Lecturer at the New Zealand Institute for Security and Crime Science and an honorary Research Fellow at UCL’s Department of Security and Crime Science, where she used to work. Lisa’s research interests coalesce around generating evidence to help practitioners and policy-makers to prevent crime. Her research has been commissioned by a range of UK agencies, such as the Home Office, Environment Agency, Regional Government Offices and Local Authorities, as well as Police Forces and Local Authorities. Lisa takes a data science approach to problem-solving and has developed methods for analysing several emerging and hidden crime types. She is a co-investigator on the current ESRC-funded trafficking project, leading on analysis of data from the UK’s Modern Slavery Helpline.

Doctoral Researchers

There are numerous doctoral researchers working at UCL Security and Crime Science on PhD research into various aspects of human trafficking, smuggling, exploitation and/or neighbouring issues, in the UK and internationally. They are an important part of our vibrant research community and we have regular research group meetings (particular thanks go to Francesca Costi and David Suber for their important contributions to setting up this group and organising these sessions). Below you can find brief summaries of current doctoral research projects (contact details included with consent). Please do get in touch if you are interested in doing a PhD with us at UCL Security and Crime Science.

Alexandre Bish

PhD supervisors: Dr Ella Cockbain and Professor Hervé Borrion, both UCL Security and Crime Science

Working title: Modelling migrant-smuggling and trafficking dynamics on the Central Mediterranean route to Europe.

Research focus: My PhD research looks at scripting and modelling migrant smuggling dynamics on the central Mediterranean route to Europe with a focus on Libya and Niger. The main methods used include crime scripting, social network analysis and statistical analysis. Data is drawn from interviews with migrants, migrant smugglers, and key informant interviews. This research is funded by an EPSRC studentship (via the SECReT doctoral training centre).

Email: a.bish.17@ucl.ac.uk

Kane Brooks

PhD supervisors: Dr Sanaz Zolghadriha and Professor Kate Bowers, both UCL Security and Crime Science

Working title: The role of social media intelligence in organised crime investigations involving child criminal exploitation.

Research focus: This project examines evidential opportunities innate to social media usage by young persons engaged in organised criminal conduct. The phenomenon of county line gangs has received significant media attention. However, the criminal investigation techniques deployed by practitioners have undergone less public scrutiny. Social media intelligence, also known as internet intelligence investigations (III), is the operational tactic used by law enforcement organisations to collect evidence from suspects and victims in a wide range of criminal investigations. This is a crucial intelligence development tool for organised crime investigations involving child criminal exploitation (CCE).

Jonathan Camilleri

PhD supervisors: Dr Ella Cockbain and Dr Jyoti Belur, both UCL Security and Crime Science 

Working title: Investigating agency, choice and exploitation in sex work in Malta through the perspective of sex working and non-sex working stakeholders. 

Research focus: This Malta-based project (i) probes local non-sex working stakeholders’ perceptions on agency, choice and exploitation in sex work, (ii) and examines these perceptions against primary data on how people in sex work navigate complex choices across a spectrum of agency and oppression, and within the context of individual, social, environmental and systemic factors. Primary data is collected via in-depth interviews with a range of people with lived experience of sex work in Malta, and with non-sex working stakeholders and practitioners. This research is funded by the Tertiary Education Scholarships Scheme (Malta).

Email: j.camilleri.17@ucl.ac.uk 

Francesca Costi

PhD supervisors: Professor Kate Bowers and Dr Sanaz Zolghadriha, both UCL Security and Crime Science

Working title: Studying crime during the pandemic: how technology has changed the human trafficking business structure in the UK.

Research focus: My PhD research looks at the changes in human trafficking during the Covid-19 pandemic and the adaptability of human trafficking illicit crime enterprise to the new era of digitalisation. This project is focused on studying and analysing the modus operandi that offenders have adopted in using adult website services (AWS) in sexual exploitation and trafficking reaching a new level of cyber-sophistication in their business model. This research is funded by a Dawes-UCL SECReT scholarship, and is part of the Dawes Centre for Future Crime.

Email: francesca.costi.19@ucl.ac.uk

Clara Cotroneo

PhD supervisors: Professor Joachim Koops (Leiden University, Institute of Security and Global Affairs) and Dr Ella Cockbain (UCL Security and Crime Science)

Working title: Anti-trafficking policies and practices in Europe

Research focus: my research investigates and examines the EU approach to trafficking in human beings in times of crisis. In particular, I am interested in identifying inconsistencies in policy and field practices, with the objective of flagging up potential risks for victims.

Email: c.cotroneo@fgga.leidenuniv.nl

Aliai Eusebi

PhD supervisors: Dr Enrico Mariconti (UCL Security and Crime Science), Dr Marie Vasek (UCL Computer Science) and Dr Ella Cockbain (UCL Security and Crime Science).

Working title: Ethical machine learning for online safety 

Research focus: My PhD research is designed to operationalise the role of ethics in machine learning for online safety. The technical reality of machine learning is permeated by a constellation of ethical concerns related to transparency, fairness, and privacy, among others. I am interested in exploring actions to mitigate black-box, biased, and privacy violating AI when responding to socially-sensitive problems like online child sexual exploitation. This research is funded by an ESRC studentship. 


Phirapat Mangkhalasiri

PhD supervisors: Dr Jyoti Belur and Dr Ella Cockbain, both UCL Security and Crime Science

Working title: Human Trafficking for Child Sex Trafficking and Child Labour Trafficking in Thailand: Challenges of Investigation and Prosecution in the Criminal Justice System

Research focus: This study aims to map out how child sex trafficking and child labour trafficking cases are currently being investigated and prosecuted in Thailand, to identify gaps and challenges in the successful investigation and subsequent prosecution of child sex trafficking and child labour trafficking cases, and to draw solutions from the literature and from practitioners to address some of these challenges. This study involves extracting data from police investigative case files, as well as interviews with police officers, prosecutors, judges, social welfare officers and NGOs. This research is funded by a scholarship from the Thai Government.

Email: p.mangkhalasiri.16@ucl.ac.uk

Mohammad Saheed

Supervisors: Dr Jyoti Belur & Dr Ben Bradford

Working title: Assessing the response of the London Metropolitan Police & Counter Terrorism Policing towards Modern Slavery

Research focus: My research is a qualitative based study. The data will be collected by conducting semi-structured interviews of Police officers working within the Modern Slavery Team of the London Metropolitan Police & officers working within Counter Terrorism Policing. The study aims to identify perceptions and misperceptions related to victim characteristics and examine the impact of current training initiatives.

Valentina Stincanu

Supervisors: Dr Enrico Mariconti, Dr Ella Cockbain and Dr Alina Ristea, all UCL Security and Crime Science

Working title: Mixed Methods Research into the Development of Human Trafficking in Cyberspace – A Country-Specific Case Study Analysis 

Research focus: The PhD is a mixed methods analysis of human trafficking and anti-trafficking activity, with a particular interest in the trafficking-online nexus. It will involve a variety of complementary studies, including quantitative analysis of human trafficking statistical data, social media analysis and fieldwork around governmental and non-governmental organisations’ prevention campaigns, as well as social media analysis into advertisements and opportunities abroad. This research aims to examine the role of cyberspace in facilitating both human trafficking and anti-trafficking activity.

Email: valentina.stincanu.20@ucl.ac.uk 

David Leone Suber

Supervisors: Dr Ella Cockbain and Professor Ben Bradford, both UCL Security and Crime Science

Working title: Assessing the effects and models of border enforcement practices over smuggling and trafficking networks, and migrant vulnerability, in and to Europe.

Research focus: This research looks at how smuggling networks operate and transform, and why are they so resilient in the current environment of global migration flows and border enforcement strategies at Europe’s land borders. This study involves a systematic review of academic literature on border enforcement and human smuggling, as well as fieldwork from the Turkish-Syrian and Turkish-Iranian border, the Balkan route and the UK-France cross-Channel route, involving a multitude of research methods, including interviews with migrants and smugglers, data extraction from social media channels used for smuggling, and law enforcement data. This research is funded by an ESRC studentship.

Email: david.suber.19@ucl.ac.uk

MSc Students

We have taught MSc students about these issues for many years now, and are delighted to now be offering a new specialist MSc module from 2023/24. Entitled ‘Human trafficking, smuggling and exploitation’, this module will provide MSc students cutting-edge research-led teaching and the ability to explore complex and contested issues in more depth. In addition, each year many Departmental MSc students choose to focus on topics related to human trafficking/smuggling/exploitation for their dissertation research projects. Our staff have supervised a wide variety of MSc projects in this field over the years, including the following examples from students whose MSc research was subsequently published in academic journals: