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Human Trafficking Reports in the UK Reach Record High — and Children Are Suffering Most

The number of potential victims of modern slavery in the has reached a record high — with more British nationals at risk than ever before.

In 2017, more than 5,000 cases were referred to the UK’s National Referral Mechanism, which identifies and supports victims.

This number represents a 35% increase on 2016, and is the highest since figures were first compiled in 2009, according to a report by the National Crime Agency (NCA).

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Of the 5,145 cases reported, British nationals made up the highest number of cases for the first time — with 819 potential British victims reported, up from 326 in 2016. 

Albanian potential victims made up 777 of the cases, and Vietnamese made up 739 of cases. But 116 different nationalities appeared in the list of referred cases —  including China, Nigeria, Romania, Sudan, Eritrea, India, Poland, and Pakistan. 

Worryingly, the number of children identified as potential victims rose by 66% from 2016 — up to 2,118 cases, from 1,278 the previous year. 

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“The reality is that there isn’t a region in the UK that isn't affected,” Liam Vernon, a senior manager in the NCA’s modern slavery and human trafficking unit, told the Independent. “The number is shocking and our assessment is that this is an under-reported crime.” 

According to the NCA, the increase in referrals was “driven by greater awareness” of the problem, reported the BBC. But it said that the figures “almost certainly represent an underestimate of the true scale” of the problem. 

“We are now dealing with an evolving threat,” said Will Kerr, director of the NCA. “The criminals involved in these types of exploitation are going into online spaces, particularly adult services website, to enable their criminality.” 

The report comes on the third anniversary of the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 into law, on March 26. 

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The rise in the numbers of children involved, as well as the growing number of British nationals, is partly due to the growth of a drug supply route known as “county lines,” reported the BBC, which sees city-based gangs using young people to carry drugs like heroin and crack cocaine to rural areas.

“They are enticed by wealth but quickly coerced by violence,” said the NCA’s deputy director, Tom Dowdall.

The NCA said that some of these exploited children have mental health issues, are drug users themselves, and some have been reported missing. 

Of the total number of cases, almost half (2,352) involved forced labour, while a third (1,744) involved sexual exploitation. Some 1,595 — nearly a third — related to exploitation that was alleged to have happened overseas. 

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The vast majority (4,714) were passed to police forces in England; 207 in Scotland; 193 in Wales; and 31 in Northern Ireland. 

Home Office minister for crime, Victoria Atkins, said the government is “leading the world in our response to this horrendous crime.” She added that more potential victims were being “identified and protected” because of an “improved understanding of modern slavery.” 

“We know there is more to do, and we are working to improve the system for identifying victims and supporting them to leave situations of exploitation and begin to recover and rebuild lives,” she said

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In the UK, a government estimate in 2014 said that between 10,000 and 13,000 people were living in slavery. Of these, many are living in plain sight — working in nail bars, cannabis farms, prostitution, flower-picking, and hand car washes. 

To report a suspected case of modern slavery, call the helpline on 0800 0121 700, or visit the website here.

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