There are people being held as modern slaves and victims of human trafficking in "every large town and city in the country" in the UK – more than previously thought, the National Crime Agency said today.
There could be as many as tens of thousands of victims hiding in plain sight, the agency said, with a recent crackdown having highlighted the scale of the crime, the BBC reported. Previously it was believed there were 10,000-13,000 victims, but this figure has been described as the "tip of the iceberg".
Modern slaves are people forced to work against their will, often in nail bars, brothels, on construction sites, on cannabis farms and in agriculture. Human traffickers, who are out to make money, lure vulnerable people to the UK with false assurances of jobs, education and sometimes love, reported the BBC.
Will Kerr, the NCA's director of vulnerabilities, said he'd been shocked by discovering the extent of the problem. There are more than 300 live policing operations currently focussing on modern slavery in the UK. "The more we look, the more we find," he said.
In fact, the problem is so extensive that every one of us most likely comes into contact with victims every day. Kerr added: “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,” reported The Guardian.
Victims most often come from countries including Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam, Romania and Poland, but some also originate from the UK. They tend to be vulnerable and from minority or socially-excluded groups, but can be of any gender or age. Anti-slavery charities believe victims are often fleeing poverty, a lack of opportunities and/or education at home, and social and political instability or war.
Most modern slaves in the UK are trapped in sexual exploitation, with the second most common form of slavery being labour exploitation, forced criminal exploitation and domestic servitude. One case, cited by Kerr, involved a 12-year-old Roma girl who was stopped at border control and set 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. Those involved in the case have had criminal charges brought against them, but more needs to be done to ensure other traffickers are caught.
Vulnerable people are often unaware that they're victims of slavery and the British public is generally unaware of the signs that someone is being abused. According to the NCA, these can include the way they're dressed, visible injuries, signs of stress and the way in which they became involved in their area of work.