Expect more stories of slavery and demand more victim support
If the National Crime Agency’s latest findings are anything to go by, expect many more headlines like this over the next decade: ‘Lincolnshire slavery gang forced man to dig his own grave in truly shocking 26-year hard labour ordeal.‘
We are only just starting to hear the stories of Britain’s hidden slaves. Figures released the week before last showed the scale of concern among law enforcement agencies. In May and June alone, 130 potential victims were discovered and 111 arrests were made. Local news outlets from Cambridge to Kirklees have reported an upsurge in slavery-related police activity. Over 300 police operations targeting modern slavery are in action across the UK.
The more that we look for modern slavery, said Will Kerr, the NCA’s Director of Vulnerabilities, the more we find the evidence of the widespread abuse of the vulnerable. The growing body of evidence we are collecting points to the scale being far larger than anyone had previously thought.
All this goes to show one thing: slavery isn’t a museum-piece. Slaves are working in every large town and city in the UK, and there have never been more of them. They are forced to paint nails, to wash cars, to pack online clothes’ orders, to grow cannabis, to perform sex work, to catch fish, to harvest crops, to pick fruit, even to resurface driveways like the man who was made to dig his own grave in an unassuming village a few miles from Lincoln.
That man was one of 18 adults trafficked to sites at Drinsey Nook and Washingborough, where they lived in caravans with no running water, heating or toilets. The Rooney family, 11 of whom were convicted this month, deliberately targeted the vulnerable: those experiencing homelessness, those with learning difficulties, addicts. Their victims didn’t realise they had been trapped until it was too late. The Rooneys promised them work, and they gave them hell.
Chief Superintendent Nikki Mayo, who led the investigation, described how the victims were abused into submission: They were not given training for the manual labour and although not physically trapped, they were financially, emotionally and physically abused, making any escape seem impossible.
By the time sentences are handed down in September, it will have been a full three years since the initial police raids of the sites. That’s around 1,100 days. Under the current system, victim support is guaranteed for just 45 days.
It bears repeating: the legal process to which the victim’s first-hand testimony is the essential component has lasted 25 times longer than the support we have offered. That, apparently, is the best we can do for a man who has been enslaved in our country for a third of a lifetime.
The lesson we must learn is that policing and prosecutions are only half the story. As more and more victims emerge, we will have to do better and sooner, rather than later. If not, victims will become vulnerable to traffickers all over again and, what’s more, they’ll be less inclined to testify in court. Rescue and release is not a strategy. It’s an outrage.
If you are concerned about modern slavery in your community, you can contact your local police force on 101 or the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700. If in doubt, please report it. There is more information on the National Crime Agency website, here.
*Will Bordell is part of René Cassin’s Modern Slavery Campaign Group, find out more about how to get involved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org