By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Jan 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of suspected victims of slavery in Britain are living "in limbo" and risk being retrafficked due to long delays in the system that identifies modern slaves, activists said on Tuesday.
More than 2,200 people have been waiting for at least a year to find out whether they will be recognised as victims of slavery - which can help many stay in Britain or return home - according to government documents obtained by the BBC.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation was unable to independently verify the data but the Home Office (interior ministry) did not dispute the findings published by Britain's public broadcaster.
People who say they have been enslaved can enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and access support, ranging from healthcare and housing to legal aid, while the British government decides whether or not to recognise them as victims.
Possible victims are given 45 days to recover while their cases are considered, and government guidelines say a decision should be made "as soon as possible" after this period of time.
"We know that some victims, particularly from outside the European Union, can wait up to several years," said Tamara Barnett, projects leader at the Human Trafficking Foundation.
"It is sometimes a hugely distressing time when the victim's life is in limbo and we know that some survivors even attempt suicide ... and are at huge risk of falling back into illegal and potentially exploitative working environments," she added.
The Home Office in 2017 announced several reforms to the NRM, including extra shelter and support, drop-in services and an overhaul of the decision-making and review processes.
"We are committed to reforming the NRM to ensure victims of modern slavery get the support they need," a spokesman said.
Yet the rising number of victims coming forward in Britain is putting huge strain on a system which is not fit to cope, said Debbie Beadle of anti-child trafficking charity ECPAT UK.
About 5,145 possible victims were referred to the government for assistance in 2017 - up from 3,804 in 2016 - yet campaigners say many slaves remain hidden, often due to fear of authorities.
"Young people may run away due to the delays ... and end up at risk of being retrafficked," Beadle, a programme director for ECPAT UK, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
Despite being hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain said in July it would review its landmark 2015 law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive firms to stop forced labour or help victims.
Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation - a figure 10 times higher than a government estimate from 2013. (Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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