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Referrals to specialist anti-slavery scheme rise significantly, report reveals

Last year 819 UK citizens were flagged to the National Referral Mechanism, more than double the 326 referred in 2016.

Record numbers of Britons are being flagged up as potential victims of slavery, a new report reveals.

Last year for the first time UK nationals made up the highest volume of cases passed to a scheme set up to identify children and adults who are at the mercy of slave drivers and traffickers.

Investigators said the development was partly driven by a jump in referrals relating to children who are exploited by drug gangs.

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(PA Graphics)

Last year 819 UK citizens were flagged to the National Referral Mechanism, more than double the 326 referred in 2016.

The National Crime Agency, which compiled the figures, said the increase in British numbers was largely down to a 66% rise in minors being referred to the NRM as suspected victims of labour or sexual exploitation.

This was due in part to an uptick in referrals linked to a drug distribution model known as “county lines”.

This typically involves city gangs branching out into county or coastal towns to sell heroin and crack cocaine.

They deploy children and vulnerable people as couriers to move drugs and cash between the new market and their urban hub.

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(PA Graphics)

County lines cases are recorded in the labour exploitation bracket.

In total 5,145 potential victims of slavery or trafficking were submitted to the mechanism in 2017, up 35% on the previous year when there were 3,804 referrals.

NCA director Will Kerr said: “It is our assessment that the increase we are seeing here is driven by an increased awareness and greater reporting of modern slavery and that is to be welcomed.

“However, it also adds further evidence to our view that the figures almost certainly represent an underestimate of the true scale of slavery and trafficking in the UK.”

He warned authorities are dealing with an “evolving threat” as criminals go into “online spaces” to enable their offending.

Mr Kerr said: “We are also seeing increasing crossovers between slavery and organised immigration crime outside of the UK.

“Often the same criminal networks are involved in transportation, and migrants themselves are vulnerable to labour and sexual exploitation during their journeys and after.

“Particularly concerning to us is the rise in young people being exploited for sexual purposes or drug trafficking.”

The NRM is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, such as those subjected to sexual exploitation, forced labour or domestic servitude.

Modern slavery and trafficking are despicable crimes which see some of the most vulnerable people in society targeted by ruthless predators Home Office minister Victoria Atkins

Possible cases are referred by first response agencies to specialist units in the NCA or Home Office.

Not all individuals who are referred are ultimately assessed to be modern slavery victims.

The analysis found 116 different nationalities were represented among last year’s referrals, with Albanian and Vietnamese nationals the next most commonly reported potential victims after the UK.

Suspected labour exploitation was the most frequently cited category, accounting for 2,352 cases – nearly half of all referrals.

Other reports were linked to suspected sexual exploitation (1,744) and domestic servitude (488).

The majority, 4,714, of referrals were passed to English police forces for crime recording purposes, with 207 referred in Scotland, 193 in Wales and 31 in Northern Ireland.

Of the referrals logged last year, 1,595, or nearly a third, related to exploitation alleged to have happened overseas.

Police are identifying more victims of modern slavery than ever before, ensuring they get the support they need and exploitation is stopped Devon and Cornwall Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer

A separate report published on Monday reveals the number of modern slavery operations being carried out by police at any one time has tripled, from 188 in December 2015 to 568 last month.

Devon and Cornwall Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, the national policing lead for modern slavery, said: “It means police are identifying more victims of modern slavery than ever before, ensuring they get the support they need and exploitation is stopped.”

On where modern slavery sits among policing priorities, Mr Sawyer said: “Stealing years from someone’s life, abusing them to believing they are subhuman, denying them employment opportunities, not enabling them to have healthcare, demeaning and destroying their education … it’s pretty high for me.”

Victoria Atkins, Home Office minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability, said: “Modern slavery and trafficking are despicable crimes which see some of the most vulnerable people in society targeted by ruthless predators.”

She said the Government is “leading the world in our response to this horrendous crime”, adding: “These figures show that more potential victims are being identified and protected thanks to a greater awareness and improved understanding of modern slavery.”

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