The enormous scale of modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK has been revealed in a major official report, with hundreds cases affecting “every large town and city in the country”.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) said the scale of the issue is far more prevalent than previously estimated, and warned that the threat is continuing to expand.
There are currently more than 300 live police operations targeting modern slavery in the UK, with alleged victims as young as 12 being sold to families in the UK from Europe, the report reveals.
Operational activity focusing on labour and sexual exploitation, coordinated by the NCA through May and June, led to 111 arrests in the UK and some 130 people being encountered who may be considered as victims.
Linked activity also took place on mainland Europe resulting in around 40 further arrests and the launch of 25 further investigations.
Will Kerr, director of vulnerabilities at the NCA, said: “The more that 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 previously thought. This should not be acceptable in any way, shape or form.”
Responding to the report, Kevin Hyland, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, said the fight against modern slavery must go beyond arrests, and extend into more convictions as well as improved intelligence gathering and better support for victims.
“Arrests have been made by police, victims rescued and convictions secured. But the real work starts now. We need to see more convictions and criminals behind bars,” Mr Hyland said.
“We need to see information gathered and mined for intelligence that leads to organised networks dismantled. And we need these victims to be supported and cared for so that they are no longer vulnerable to traffickers and slave masters.
“It is my hope that the campaign launched today by the NCA leads to an increased awareness among the British public, so that we can pride ourselves on being a nation that will not tolerate the evil of modern slavery.”
The report comes a day after Mr Hyland accused the NCA came of not taking the crime seriously enough and allowing important information about modern slavery offences to “sit dormant” on databases.
Speaking to the Evening Standard on Thursday, Mr Hyland said measures to protect other potential victims had not been taken, in a failure he likened to allowing a rapist to “run around London” without police taking action.
The number of people being referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s official framework for identifying victims of human trafficking – has risen steadily in recent years. Almost 1,400 victims, including cases of sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, were identified last year.
Kate Roberts, head of the Human Trafficking Foundation, said in order to tackle the problem and help victims there must be improvements in the recording of data.
“We know modern slavery and human trafficking are a much bigger problem than is being identified, yet we’re still stumbling around because we don’t have proper data,” she told The Independent.
“The Anti-Slavery Commissioner has been calling for improvement on data gathering for years. It is alarming that we’re still hypothesising so much. It is a hidden crime but we need to be better at collecting figures.”
Ms Roberts also warned that improved systems must be in place to support victims once they are identified, which would in turn encourage more victims to come forward.
“Data-collection needs to go on beyond the point of identification, but to do that we need to support these people. It’s got to be about providing support for victims beyond the NRM,” she said.
“Some victims are in slavery and aren’t approaching the NRM because they don’t believe it will help them. We need a system where adult victims approach it, so we need to provide more support.”
A report published by the Work and Pensions Committee in April found recording of data collected by the NRM was “generally substandard”, and accused the mechanism of being “nothing but a piece of paper” to victims.
The Independent revealed in May that hundreds of slavery victims in the UK were being “abandoned” by the authorities as soon as they are identified, placing them at risk of falling straight back into the hands of traffickers.
Charities said they were being left “desperately trying to fill in the gaps” as vulnerable people fall into destitution, alcoholism and exploitation because of a lack of government-funded care.
Responding to the report, Anne Read, director of anti-trafficking and modern slavery for The Salvation Army, said: “The news today from the NCA is consistent with trends we have witnessed over the past six years of managing the Government contract to support all adult victims of modern slavery in England and Wales.
“The number of people being referred to The Salvation Army for specialist support to start their recovery from exploitation at the hands of human traffickers continues to rise year-on-year.”
Speaking specifically on child-trafficking and child slavery victims, Ryan Mahan, of ECPAT, a campaigning organisation working to prevent child trafficking, said: “There are two scandals at work here. Every year, more and more adults and children are subjected to unimaginable forms of abuse and exploitation in the UK.
“Despite this, victims continue to be denied access to the vital services they need to recover and rebuild their lives. Authorities must stop prioritising immigration control targets over the safety of victims, which leaves scores of the children we work with vulnerable to missing, re-trafficking and deportation.”
Barnardo’s chief executive, Javed Khan, said: “These new figures show the shocking scale of modern slavery in the UK but it’s important to remember that it does not only affect adults.
“Traffickers do not care how young their victims are and Barnardo’s has provided support to children of all ages, including babies who have been trafficked.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery is a barbaric crime which destroys the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our society.
“This Government has taken world-leading action to tackle it, giving law enforcement agencies the tools they need, toughening up sentences and increasing support and protection for victims.
“We continue to support the work of the National Crime Agency to leave criminal networks of traffickers and slavers nowhere to hide. Earlier this year we launched the Joint Slavery and Trafficking Analysis Centre to provide high quality intelligence analysis to assess the threat posed by modern slavery, and to support an increased operational response to this horrendous crime.”
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