The latest set of National Crime Agency figures, released late in March, show that the number of potential victims of modern slavery has topped 5,000 for the very first time. It may come as quite a shock, then, to that hear NCA Director, Will Kerr, said the increase is to be welcomed.
According to Kerr, the rise was “driven by an increased awareness and greater reporting of modern slavery and that is to be welcomed”. While it superficially appears as though Kerr is putting the gloss on a set of thoroughly negative statistics, his point is valid and stands up to scrutiny.
Under-reporting and a lack of public awareness have long held back efforts to tackle trafficking and exploitation. This theme was recently brought to light in a report published by global risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft, which highlight under-reporting throughout the UK, especially in counties such as Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire, Dyfed-Powys and Norfolk. Of particular concern is that modern slavery will be under-reported in rural areas which are “susceptible to slavery incidents in the agricultural sector.”
In addition to the 35% rise in the overall number of referrals, for the first time since the NCA started publishing the statistics, British nationals made up the highest number of those reported, followed by Albania and Vietnam. Between them these three countries provide over 2,300 of the referrals out of a total 5,145. Overall, victims from 116 different countries were identified.
The number of children being referred also increased by 66% on the totals seen in 2016. The NCA put this down to “an increase in County Lines gang exploitation referrals included within labour exploitation and unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) being referred to the NRM.”
These explanations are both of considerable concern. Child exploitation by gangs who use them as drug runners from big cities like London and Liverpool out to smaller towns puts them in real danger of becoming victims to rising levels of drug violence. Unaccompanied minors seeking asylum are clearly some of the most vulnerable individuals and so their contribution to the significant rise in referrals should ring alarm bells.
The first step to addressing any problem is acknowledging and understanding it. In that regard, the latest NCA statistics can indeed be welcomed. The message arising out of them, however, is that there is much more to do.
The rise in the number of referrals to the authorities demonstrates the need for increased awareness among not just the police and other elements of the state, but also society as a whole. This was acknowledged by Kerr in his statement accompanying the release of the statistics, and he called for support and assistance from across the public and private sectors, NGOs and “most of all the public themselves”.
If the scourge of modern slavery is to be effectively tackled in the UK then it is clear everyone will be needed to pitch in.
Aidan Shipman is a member of René Cassin’s Modern Slavery Campaign Group.