Tens of thousands of modern slavery victims in UK, NCA says

Wide range of cases include human trafficking and prostitution, as well as people forced to work at car washes

Modern slavery and human trafficking is far more prevalent than law enforcement previously thought, with a recent crackdown lifting the lid on the “shocking” scale of the crime and potentially tens of thousands of victims in the UK, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.

Will Kerr, the NCA’s director of vulnerabilities, said the figures were far higher than those identified by the system set up by the government to identify victims of trafficking, which stood at abut 3,800 in 2016.

What is modern slavery?

About 150 years after most countries banned slavery – Brazil was the last to abolish its participation in the transatlantic slave trade, in 1888 – millions of men, women and children are still enslaved. Contemporary slavery takes many forms, from women forced into prostitution, to child slavery in agriculture supply chains or whole families working for nothing to pay off generational debts. Slavery thrives on every continent and in almost every country. Forced labour, people trafficking, debt bondage and child marriage are all forms of modern-day slavery that affect the world's most vulnerable people.

How many people are enslaved across the world?

The UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that about 21 million people are in forced labour at any point in time. The ILO says this estimate includes trafficking and other forms of modern slavery. They calculate that 90% of the 21 million are exploited by individuals or companies, while 10% are forced to work by the state, rebel military groups, or in prisons under conditions that violate ILO standards. Sexual exploitation accounts for 22% of slaves.

Where does slavery exist?

Slavery exists in one form or another in every country. Asia accounts for more than half of the ILO's 21 million estimate. In terms of percentage of population, central and south-east Europe has the highest prevalence of forced labour, followed by Africa, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Who is profiting?

In 2005, the ILO estimated that illegal profits from forced labour amounted to more than $44bn. The UN's global initiative to fight trafficking says people trafficking is the third-largest global criminal industry (pdf) behind drugs and arms trafficking. The ILO estimates that people in forced labour lose at least $21bn each year in unpaid wages and recruitment fees. Slavery also exists within global supply chains, generating huge profits for those who control this industry in free labour.

“It’s likely in the tens of thousands,” Kerr 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 cases uncovered, from a Romanian organised crime gang making €5m (£4.5m) 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, having been 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.

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 would be 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.”


Jamie Grierson

The GuardianTramp

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