The number of potential human trafficking victims identified by UK councils has increased by 78 per cent in a year, prompting urgent calls for heightened public awareness around the issue to tackle the “rising threat” of modern slavery within communities.
Referrals by local councils to the National Referral Mechanism — the UK’s framework for referring and supporting victims of trafficking— soared from 172 in 2014 to 306 in 2015, according to the latest National Crime Agency figures.
The shocking statistics impelled the Local Government Association (LGA) to issue a stark warning today that the British public needs to be more aware of modern slavery in order to help tackle criminal gangs exploiting vulnerable workers living in squalor and on scandalous wages.
The total number of potential victims of modern slavery referred to the National Referral Mechanism in 2015 was 3,266 – a rise of 40 per cent on the 2,340 referrals in 2014 – while Government figures estimate that there are overall between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK.
Referrals by police forces across the UK also saw an increase, rising from 726 to 759 overall between 2014 and 2015, with certain large UK cities experiencing a particularly stark hike in numbers. Greater Manchester Police saw a 197 per cent rise, from 30 referrals in 2014 to 89 the following year, while Merseyside Police saw a huge surge of 733 per cent – rising from three to 25 in the same period.
The most common exploitation type for victims referred to the National Referral Mechanism was labour exploitation – which includes criminal exploitation – while potential victims were reported to be from 102 different countries of origin, with Albania, Vietnam and Nigeria the most common – although victims from Sudan saw the highest percentage increase in referrals compared to the previous year.
In light of the figures, the LGA, which represents more than 370 councils and all fire and rescue authorities in England and Wales, said many members of the public may unwittingly come into contact with potential victims of modern slavery while going about their daily lives, and urged people to report any suspicions to help better expose the “hidden crime”.
Simon Blackburn, chair of the LGA’s safer and stronger communities board, said: “Modern day slavery is a rising threat to our communities, and because of its hidden nature, is a major concern.
“Criminal gangs are making large sums of money on the back of others’ misery by forcing people – often by threatening or using physical violence – to work for little or no pay, or to pay off outstanding debts. By contrast those taking advantage of these people are often living luxury lifestyles.
“Councils are determined to identify these ruthless profiteers and rescue their victims from lives of servitude – and communities can really play a big part to help. Many people may think modern slavery is a problem which doesn’t affect them, but nowhere is immune because it can happen everywhere. This isn’t someone else’s problem and we all need to be alert to it, wherever we live.
“We want to encourage everyone to report suspicious behaviour which may indicate exploitation is happening in their area, such as concerns over the minimum wage and working and living conditions.”
Mr Blackburn encouraged people to look out for “tell-tale signs”, such as large numbers of people staying in homes and people being taken to and from the address in vans or minibuses early in the morning and returning late at night.
He added: “Tip-offs from communities can help councils work with partners to better tackle slavery and exploitation. A simple phone call could make a world of difference to people living wretched lives at the hands of heartless gangmasters.”
Speaking in a similar vein, the UK’s Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland OBE urged that everyone “play their part” in identifying cases of modern slavery, adding that many people do not refer potential victims to the local authorities because it is “not yet considered a serious crime”.
“As with any crime the eyes and ears of the public are crucial, and this is particularly important in the fight against modern slavery,” Mr Hyland told The Independent.
“Historically we have called this a hidden crime, but this is not always accurate – it is often visible in plain sight. Victims of modern slavery often come into contact with members of the public, and we must all play our part in identifying them and referring them for support.
“Once we understand and accept this as a serious crime against vulnerable human beings who are exploited and traded, often for financial benefit, we will then realise the importance of contacting the authorities. This can be the very thing that frees someone from violence, exploitation and modern slavery.”
The Salvation Army, which has been contracted by the Government to support adult victims in the UK since 2011, said the number of victims referred to their services is rising “year on year”, and urged the general public to “recognise the signs” and alert authorities to their suspicions.
Anne Read, director of anti-trafficking and modern slavery at The Salvation Army, said: “Year on year the number of people referred to us continues to grow and we provide specialist support to help them move on safely to integrate into society here in the UK or in their home country.
“But it is clear the general public are still not fully aware that victims of modern slavery are hidden in plain sight all around us, in every community in the UK. Right now, today, people are being forced to work in slave-like conditions not only in the sex industry and as domestic slaves, often in apparently respectable homes and streets, but also in factories, fields, shops, restaurants, car washes and nail bars.
“We believe the public will want to help when they realise there are very simple things they can do to make a change – the first is learning to recognise the signs that something might be modern slavery and reporting it.”
Some campaigners went further to say that while greater awareness is needed, it is also crucial for the Government to implement a more effective system for victims of trafficking to ensure they get the support they need to escape their situations in the long-term.
Kate Roberts, head of office at the Human Trafficking Foundation, told The Independent that due to a lack of support offered during the decision stage, and lack of time given to resettling people even when they have been identified as victims, many end up falling back into the hands of traffickers.
“While these are important statistics showing that there are increasing numbers being identified and we need heightened awareness, this needs to be coupled with a system that better supports victims to move beyond what’s happened to them and to move towards recovery,” said Ms Roberts.
“Currently, short-term support is shoe-horned in and they actually don’t get any support until the first stage of the decision. If they are deemed vulnerable, they will get support but it can be for as short as 45 days. These are people who have been in slavery, they’re in shock, so you do need a bit of time and 45 days isn’t very long.
“Even with a positive decision, within two weeks you have to exit the safe house, which really isn’t long enough to put a sustainable move-on strategy in place, given the point of vulnerability that we’re talking about. Some people who are victims of slavery have been controlled for years, and to just be exited quickly once they’ve been identified is not possible.
“Without the relevant support they can end up going back to their traffickers.”
The warnings come five months after Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced a fund of over £11 million to tackle the “barbaric” crime of modern slavery, after Theresa May called it “the greatest human rights issue of our time”.
Responding to the figures and the LGA's warning, 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 through the Modern Slavery Act, giving law enforcement agencies the tools they need, toughening up sentences and increasing support and protection for victims.
“But there is more to do. We encourage the public to be vigilant and report suspicions to the authorities so that we can support victims and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
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