REPORTS OF SEXUAL AND CRIMINAL EXPLOITATION increased dramatically during the pandemic, according to new figures on the state of modern slavery in the UK.

The figures, published on 7 April 2021, are part of the Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline Annual Assessment, a yearly assessment of the scale of slavery and human trafficking in the UK.

Despite an overall drop in contacts to the Helpline, reports of sexual exploitation were up 25 per cent on the previous year, with nearly a quarter of potential victims being children.

Criminal exploitation, meanwhile, was up by 42 per cent, with a fifth of potential victims being minors. Criminal exploitation includes drugs-related activity, including County Lines, forced shoplifting and forced begging.

Data from the Helpline, which is run by the anti-slavery charity Unseen, helps to shed light on the nature and scale of the problem in the UK. Its Annual Assessment, which includes data for every policing area in the UK, is one of the most detailed reports produced by the sector. It is used by other charities, the police, local and national governments and others to inform policy and respond directly to reports of slavery and human trafficking.

Findings include:

  • Nearly 8,000 contacts in 2020 from victims, professionals working in services such as the NHS, businesses and members of the public.
  • A potential 3,481 victims of modern slavery were indicated as a result of this contact.
  • 10 per cent of victims were children, up from seven per cent in 2019.
  • Despite fewer contacts to the hlpline during the pandemic (down nearly 14 per cent to 7,976), the number of modern slavery cases remains fairly consistent: 1,742 in 2020 compared to 1,812 in 2019.
  • Potential victims came from 80 nationalities, with Romanian being most common, followed by Chinese, Albanian and English.
  • There was a  95 per cent increase in reports related to modern slavery in cannabis farms, compared to 2019.

Justine Currell, Executive Director of Unseen and co-author of the Assessment, said: “A year on from the first lockdown, the number of reports relating to sexual and criminal exploitation, and those involving children, is particularly alarming, given that overall contacts to the Helpline decreased during the pandemic.

“Covid-19 and the subsequent economic downturn affected the visibility of the threat in such places as car washes and nail bars. And as you would expect, the proportion of calls from the general public declined during the lockdowns. But this report shows that modern slavery and human trafficking is still alive and unfortunately thriving.

“There is still a general lack of awareness of modern slavery, which could involve as many as 100,000 people in the UK alone, so it’s vital we all learn more about the issue and how to spot the signs of exploitation.”

Commenting on the Assessment, Iryna Pona, Policy Manager at The Children’s Society, said: “Sadly those people out to groom children and subject them to horrific exploitation have continued to operate under successive lockdowns, changing their tactics where necessary, for example by targeting them online.

“Perpetrators have tried to take advantage of vulnerabilities which may have arisen or been made worse by the restrictions including loneliness, poverty and tensions and conflict at home. Children may have been manipulated to think they have made a choice or they may have been threatened – leaving them too scared to tell someone what is happening.

“That’s why it’s vital that professionals, parents, carers and the public look out for signs and changes in behaviour which may indicate children have been exploited, understand they are victims and get them the help they desperately need. There must be a real focus from police on going after those people exploiting children to disrupt their activities and bring them to justice.

“Sustained investment is needed in training for professionals and in both early help services to identify risks and help children before grooming escalates, and those services which support young people who have sadly been exploited to stay safe and recover.

“We have found that knowledge among professionals of the National Referral Mechanism, (NRM) the system for identifying victims of modern slavery is patchy and that referrals are often of a poor quality. This needs to change. Every child should be referred to the NRM where exploitation is suspected and we want the Government to give all children – including victims of both domestic and international trafficking – access to an independent child trafficking guardian who can help them get the support they need.

“The Government should also use its proposed Online Harm Bill to make the online world a safer place for children and young people and protect them from grooming for criminal as well as sexual exploitation.”

The Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline is free to use, can take calls in more than 200 languages, and operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is confidential and independent, providing information, advice and guidance to potential victims, businesses, statutory agencies and the public about any modern slavery issue. It receives no government funding. Call 08000 121700.

* The Modern Slavery Helpline is here.

* Source: Unseen