Modern slavery and human trafficking is far more prevalent than previously thought, with a recent crackdown lifting the lid on the scale of the crime and potentially tens of thousands of victims in the UK, the National Crime Agency has said.
A surge in NCA operations focusing on labour and sexual exploitation suggests the number of victims is much higher than estimated.
Will Kerr, the NCA’s director of vulnerabilities, said the figures were far higher than those identified by the national referral mechanism, which is about 3,800. “It’s likely in the tens of thousands,” he said. “The more we look for modern slavery the more we find evidence of the widespread abuse of the vulnerable. The growing body of evidence we are collecting points to the scale being far larger than anyone had previously thought.”
There has been a wide range of casesuncovered, ranging from a Romanian organised crime gang making €5m (£4.5m) from advertising prostitutes online and laundering the proceeds, to a 12-year-old girl being trafficked into the UK to take children to school.
Victims are predominantly from eastern Europe, Vietnam and Nigeria, with a roughly equal balance between men and women, the NCA said. There were currently more than 300 live policing operations targeting modern slavery in the UK, it added.
In May and June alone, there were 111 arrests related to 130 potential victims in the UK as part of an operation led by the NCA.
The agency has launched a campaign to increase public awareness and encourage people to report suspicions to a modern slavery hotline.
Kerr said examples included those working at car washes and in construction, agriculture and food processing. They receive very little pay and are forced to put up with poor living conditions.
Others sold into slavery could be kept in pop-up brothels, where sex workers who have been promised a better life are left penniless with few clothes other than underwear, while some work in cannabis factories, he said.
“As you go about your normal daily life and as you’re engaged in a legitimate economy accessing goods and services, there is a growing and a good chance you will come across a victim who has been exploited in one of those different sectors,” he said. “That’s why we are asking the public to try and recognise the signs and to report their concerns and suspicions to us.”
He cited one example of a 12-year-old girl being stopped at border control, bound for a life as a domestic slave. “She was being brought in to work for a family in part of the UK, where she had effectively been sold by her father – or it had been facilitated by her father – and she was being brought in to take this family’s children to school and pick them up every day, and clean the house in between,” he said. “Twelve years old, same age as my youngest son.”
Kerr said criminal charges were pending against those involved in the case. “People are being exploited on an hourly and daily basis. The full scale and extent of it, we don’t know. But what we have found is that in every medium-to-large town and every city in the UK, we have found evidence of vulnerable people being exploited,” he said.
The modern slavery helpline, which launched in 2016, operates 24/7, with fully trained specialist staff. The helpline has so far received 1,799 calls and made 1,051 referrals, with more than 2,000 potential modern slavery victims indicated.
Mark Burns-Williamson, Association of Police and Crime Commissioners national lead for human trafficking and modern slavery, said: “The main point we really need to drive home is that this horrendous crime is happening everywhere and we need our communities help to stop it.”
He added: “General indicators of human trafficking or modern slavery can include signs of physical or psychological abuse, fear of authorities, no ID documents, poor living conditions and working long hours for little or no pay.
“Human trafficking and modern slavery destroy lives. They are terrible abuses of human rights, shamefully robbing people of their dignity, causing total misery to the victims, their families and our communities. We all need to work together to stop it.”
Philippa Rowen, chaplain to the bishop of Derby, said the Church of England was launching a three-year project in October to help dioceses respond to modern slavery in their communities. “We need communities that have their eyes open, who are aware enough of their surroundings that they can say when something doesn’t look right,” she said.
“When the man cleaning their car has no safety equipment, and looks underfed and tired. When their neighbours live-in nanny never seems to leave the house, and is too frightened to talk to them. When the holiday let at the end of the road is being visited by different men all through the day and night.
“The Church of England, with a presence in every parish, is uniquely placed to be those eyes and ears, and to spread this message further.”