The British modern slavery victims
Contemporary slavery, also known as modern slavery or neo-slavery, refers to institutional slavery that continues to occur in present-day society. The estimated number of slaves is debated, as there is no universally agreed definition of modern slavery; those in slavery are often difficult to identify, and adequate statistics are often not available.
Whether they are women forced into prostitution, men forced to work in agriculture or construction, children in sweatshops or girls forced to marry older men, their lives are controlled by their exploiters, they no longer have a free choice and they have to do as they’re told. They are in slavery.
An analysis of data by The Independent shows the number of UK nationals recorded as being potential victims of trafficking increased from 1,246 in 2017-18 to 2,143 in 2018-19 – with the proportion of all victims who are British up from 21 per cent to 26 per cent in one year.
Campaigners said the rise was likely to be down to the growing number of victims being identified as having been exploited through county lines activity, in which gangs traffic drugs into rural areas, as well as exploitation that continues to occur in farms, car washes and nail bars.
Child victims of modern slavery are being lured back into exploitation and falling into homelessness as cash-strapped local authorities struggle to cope with a surge in cases. An analysis of official statistics by the Local Government Association (LGA) shows the figure has risen from 127 in 2014 to 1,152 in 2018, with the rate of these child referrals increasing by 67 per cent in a year alone, from 690 in 2017, with children now accounting for 92 per cent of all referrals made by councils. Campaigners are calling for a scheme of “independent legal guardians”, which already exists in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and allocates each child an advocate who would be able to instruct solicitors on their behalf and represent their interests.
The Salvation Army, a charity contracted by the Home Office to provide safe housing and support to modern slavery victims, said it had seen a 58 per cent rise in British nationals entering its service in the last year.
As well as highlighting the scale of county lines exploitation, the findings will fuel concern that rough sleepers are being coerced into exploitative situations, with recent research by the charity Unseen revealing 7 per cent of all cases reported to its helpline involve a homeless victim.
Jakub Sobik, of Anti-Slavery International said: “These numbers show that nationality of people targeted to be exploited doesn’t matter, all it takes is finding vulnerable people and a way to trap and exploit them.
“The county lines practice is particularly disturbing. Children are attracted by gifts and promises of flashy life, but soon get trapped in the drug crime and can face extreme violence if they want to leave."
Emily Kenway, senior advisor at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), said that considering the UK’s “woeful failure” to fund labour inspection adequately, it was not a surprise that exploitation was “rife and rising”. She added that, while the increase was in a sense positive because it showed police were recognising that county lines drug running may include victims of trafficking, “more must be done to prevent exploitation from occurring in the first place”.
It comes amid warnings that Brexit uncertainty could lead to the closure of the UK’s modern slavery helpline, leaving thousands of trafficking victims across the country in exploitative situations.
Unseen, the charity that runs the helpline, said sustained political uncertainty and a tough economic period – created in large part by Brexit – had contributed to a drop in funding, forcing it to launch an emergency appeal to avert closure.