Modern Slavery Is Closer Than You Think

Kevin Hyland, the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, when interviewed on Good Morning Ulster as part of the DOJ’s Awareness Campaign in October 2017, was asked how we would define modern slavery today.


Image, left to right: Julie Wilson, Head of Organised Crime Branch, DOJ, George Hamilton, Chief Constable PSNI, Kevin Hyland OBE, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Nick Perry, Permanent Secretary, DOJ and Dr Eamon Phoenix, Local Historian.

His response was that it can take various forms, but primarily, ‘where people are kept in forced labour, servitude, compulsory labour, or are being sexually exploited.' He asked listeners to consider how Modern Slavery manifests itself- what does it actually look like?

He explained that ‘it could be somebody kept in a car wash who is there being kept against their will, not being paid, being kept in multiple occupancy. It could be somebody in a nail bar, it could be somebody in a brothel, it could be children.’

Modern Slavery is an issue both in the UK and globally.

Modern Slavery is closer than you think- it’s happening in Northern Ireland.

As we continue to reflect on the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act 2015 three years on, we spoke to Julie Wilson, Head of the Organised Crime Branch and Human Trafficking Team at the Department of Justice. We wanted to learn more about what the DOJ are doing to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking, and to find out what the public can do to help.

Below is a written interview with Julie:

Julie: From the DOJ’s point of view, the issue came to the fore in Northern Ireland some time ago. It became something that we needed to treat as a priority, so we set up a dedicated Human Trafficking Unit. The Department of Justice is the lead department of the Executive in this area, but it’s not the only one that is working to combat modern slavery and human trafficking.

As we reflect on the last few years- what’s working well?

Julie: It is widely recognised that Lord Morrow’s legislation is really important. It is an absolute game changer as to the way we respond to human trafficking and modern slavery. The debate around the legislation itself has helped to bring the issue to the fore and raise public awareness of it.

We are now in a completely different place than we were even five years ago- not just in the DOJ but across the jurisdiction of NI we are seeing greater partnership and coordination. We’ve been able to bring together the relevant Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) through the Human Trafficking Engagement group. The PSNI have since set up a dedicated Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Unit and are gathering and increasing expertise in this area.

Where are the gaps and what policies would you like to see developed or introduced to better tackle human trafficking?

Julie: We have identified strategic priorities as part of our planning process for the annual strategy and over the last few years these strategic priorities have remained broadly unchanged. They are around PURSUING offenders and bring them to justice; PROTECTING and supporting victims; PREVENTING modern slavery and working in PARTNERSHIP. Whilst progress is being made there is still more to be done.

That includes a focus on training frontline professionals to ensure that they are equipped to recognise and respond to modern slavery. And also looking at how we might enhance how we support and protect victims – for example – can we connect better with NGOs in other countries so that victims who choose to be repatriated can be supported and protected and so there is less risk of re-trafficking?

We’re also still learning about this issue; we have some knowledge and understanding but we don’t have the full picture right across the UK, Europe and globally and so we are working with partners across the UK to improve our understanding of the nature and scale of modern slavery here.

Can you describe the DOJ’s relationship with PSNI and NGO’s?

Julie: Tackling Modern Slavery requires a whole societal response. We work really closely with the PSNI and NGO’s. We have two main strategic partnerships- the first through the Organised Crime Taskforce which brings together all of the statutory agencies (such as PSNI, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), National Crime Agency, HMRC, DOJ, Health and Social Care Board, Home Office). Our second strategic partnership is the Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Engagement Group which provides a forum for us to work closely with a wide range of NGOs. Partnership is key in tackling this issue.

If funding and capacity were no issue, what would you like to see developed?

Julie: Funding and capacity are always going to be an issue - everyone has to work within their resources. That’s why we’ve considered what our key priorities are, and what is going to work most effectively so that we can put our resources, our time and our effort into what is going to make the most difference to victims, and to effectively tackling modern slavery.

Essentially I suspect that if we had more resources and more capacity then in a way we would want to be delivering ‘more of the same’ because we think these are the right things to be doing. Training is critical, but take for example, frontline health care workers such as emergency doctors and nurses – we know that victims of modern slavery could present at hospital Emergency Departments, or fracture clinics and that where they do there is a really important opportunity for healthcare professionals to recognise signs of slavery and report them to the police. So we need to ensure that the right sectors have appropriate training, but we also need to acknowledge that in order for them to attend training they will need to be released for some time from delivery of another critical service. So funding and capacity is an issue and in responding to modern slavery we need to work with other partners to ensure that we strike the right balance.

Is there any way churches could better engage with the Department on this and other issues?

Julie: Churches have been really involved and engaged with informing policy on this issue- churches and faith groups are represented on the Human Trafficking Engagement Group through umbrella organisations such as Evangelical Alliance and Community Faiths’ Forum.

What I think is critical is that churches are actively raising awareness amongst their congregations and members and highlighting that people need to know the signs and indicators of modern slavery, and report anything suspicious to the police. The DOJ have produced posters to raise awareness and I would love to see one of these posters on display in every church in Northern Ireland.

As Kevin Hyland, Anti Slavery Commissioner points out, it’s not just a policing matter, it’s an issue in society and it’s something that the public can assist in to actually eradicate.

Everyone has a role to play, from central government right down to people and individuals in society and churches have a really key role within that.

What do you enjoy most about this role?

Julie: There are lots of things I enjoy and find very satisfying about this role, but really for me the key thing is seeing how things have changed. There has been dedication from a lot of different agencies, organisations and individuals who have taken a stand. They are not prepared to tolerate modern slavery within NI and together have delivered and are continuing to deliver change.

They are making a difference in the lives of those who are being exploited, and that’s an inspiring world to work in. The issue is murky and difficult but to me, the people who are working to tackle it are inspirational.


Everyone has a role to play in stopping modern slavery.

Julie urges us to ‘know the signs’ so that we would be more alert and aware of indicators that someone who we may come into contact with has been trafficked or is being exploited.

If you or your church would like to receive posters from the DOJ’s Modern Slavery Awareness campaign, please email:

For more information on how to ‘Spot the Signs’ we encourage you to watch No More Traffik’s video: