Providing mobile phones to survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking during the pandemic

This research is led by Dr Michelle Farr

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have relied on digital technology to communicate. However, many people have little or no access to this kind of technology, and often these same people also face significant social and health inequalities.

This NIHR Applied Research Collaboration West (ARC West) project aims to tackle the digital exclusion experienced by survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking. It is a collaboration with Unseen, a Bristol-based organisation that provides care and support for survivors, offering a safe place for them to recover from trauma and rebuild their lives. Survivors of modern slavery (defined by the Modern Slavery Act 2015) may have experienced forced work through mental or physical threat or abuse, been dehumanised and treated as a commodity, or physically constrained, including being trafficked for sexual exploitation or forced labour.

For some of the people that Unseen supports, technology may have been used to recruit, control and exploit them. Unseen want to use the project to change this relationship with technology and instead, support people to use technology so that people have freedom and independence.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, BT donated smartphones, SIM cards and data bundles to up to 100 people who are receiving support from Unseen. This project aims to understand the impact access to mobile technology has had on this group, in terms of their mental health, well-being and social connections, their ability to access services and their levels of independence and isolation.


This project aims to:

  • train and support Unseen staff to conduct short, focussed interviews with survivors who have received mobile phones, to understand the differences that these phones have made to their lives
  • collect phone usage data and measure wellbeing using a ‘capability wellbeing’ tool called ICECAP-A. This asks questions about a person’s quality of life, in terms of their ability to have independence, friendship and enjoyment in their life
  • invite Unseen staff to share their reflections about the project, the impacts that they have seen the phones have on survivors, and lessons learned.

ARC West will analyse the data collected and jointly publish an evaluation report with Unseen, to understand if and how having mobile phones made a difference to survivors’ wellbeing and mental health.

Anticipated impacts

If the research shows that having a mobile phone has benefitted Unseen’s service users, project partners will work together to advocate for policies to be changed nationally, so that all survivors of modern slavery are entitled to a mobile phone as part of their recovery and support.