£0.5 million for research into health effects of human trafficking

8 October 2012

PROTECT research programme will shape how the NHS identifies and cares for trafficked people.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in collaboration with King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) and the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust have been awarded £449,990 by the Department of Health for research into human trafficking.

The overarching aim of the PROTECT (Provider Responses, Treatment, and Care for Trafficked People) research programme is to provide evidence to inform the NHS response to human trafficking, specifically in the identification and referral of trafficked people, and safe and appropriate care to meet their health needs.

Dr Cathy Zimmerman, project lead from the Gender, Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: "Our findings will address this evidence gap and ultimately, help trafficked people receive safe and appropriate healthcare."

Professor Louise Howard, the King's College London IoP study lead, adds: "Trafficked men, women and children frequently experience extreme physical, psychological and sexual violence and social marginalisation, and many suffer from acute and long-term health problems. Currently, we know very little about their healthcare needs, how they access NHS services and how to help healthcare professionals respond optimally to trafficked people under their care."

Reports estimate there are 2,600 sex-trafficked women in England and Wales, but measuring the true scale of human trafficking is difficult. People are trafficked for forced sex work, domestic servitude, and into various labour sectors, including agricultural, manufacturing and service industries. Previous research from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and King's revealed that women who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation experienced violence and poor physical and mental health. However, the research also found that there was very little evidence available on the health consequences of trafficked children, men or people trafficked for other forms of exploitation.

NHS staff have an essential role in identifying and referring trafficked people to other services and receiving and treating people referred for healthcare. Yet, there is extremely limited evidence to inform NHS responses. Anecdotal reports from post-trafficking services, law enforcement and a small number of provider studies suggest that trafficked people have difficulty accessing healthcare and providers do not feel equipped to identify and provide appropriate care for trafficked people.

The aims of the research are:

  • To gather evidence on the number of trafficked adults and children identify their healthcare needs and experiences and use of healthcare services.
  • To investigate how NHS staff respond to human trafficking, document NHS experience, knowledge and gaps about trafficked people's health care needs.
  • To inform NHS strategy and develop bespoke NHS information and training materials to support NHS staff to identify, refer and care for trafficked people.

Dr Cathy Zimmerman, Senior Lecturer in Gender Violence and Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and Professor Louise Howard, Head of the Section for Women's Mental Health at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's are jointly leading the project as Principal Investigators.

Co-investigators include: Dr Rebecca French, Senior Lecturer in Sexual and Reproductive Health (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine); Professor Debra Bick, Professor of Evidence Based Midwifery Practice (King's College London); Dr Melanie Abas, Senior Lecturer in Global Mental Health (King's College London); and Dr Siân Oram, Postdoctoral Researcher (King's College London); Professor Nicky Stanley, Professor of Social Work (University of Central Lancashire).

The programme will continue until March 2015 and is funded by a Department of Health Policy Research Programme grant.