'Tens of thousands' of modern slavery victims in UK, NCA says
Observer Online Desk
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.
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 Roma 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.