LONDON (Dispatches) -- Modern slavery and human trafficking is far more prevalent than law enforcement previously thought, with a recent crackdown lifting the lid on the "shocking” scale of the crime and potentially tens of thousands of victims in the UK, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.
Will Kerr, the NCA’s director of vulnerabilities, told the Guardian that the figures were far higher than those identified by the system set up by the government to identify victims of trafficking, which stood at about 3,800 in 2016.
"It’s likely in the tens of thousands,” Kerr said. "The more we look for modern slavery the more we find 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.”
There has been a wide range of cases uncovered, from a Romanian organized crime gang making 5 million euros advertising prostitutes online and laundering the proceeds, to a 12-year-old girl being trafficked into the UK to take children to school.
Victims are predominantly from eastern Europe, Vietnam and Nigeria, with a roughly equal balance between men and women, the NCA said.
In May and June alone, there were 111 arrests related to 130 potential victims in the UK as part of an operation led by the NCA.
The agency has launched a campaign to increase public awareness and encourage people to report suspicions to a modern slavery hotline.
Kerr said examples included those working at car washes and in construction, agriculture and food processing. They receive very little pay and are forced to put up with poor living conditions.
Others sold into slavery could be kept in pop-up brothels, where sex workers who have been promised a better life are left penniless with few clothes other than underwear, while some work in cannabis factories, he said.
Kerr said criminal charges were pending against those involved in the case.
"People are being exploited on an hourly and daily basis. The full scale and extent of it, we don’t know. But what we have found is that in every medium-to-large town and every city in the UK, we have found evidence of vulnerable people being exploited,” he said.
Mark Burns-Williamson, Association of Police and Crime Commissioners national lead for human trafficking and modern slavery, said: "The main point we really need to drive home is that this horrendous crime is happening everywhere and we need our communities help to stop it.”
"Human trafficking and modern slavery destroy lives. They are terrible abuses of human rights, shamefully robbing people of their dignity, causing total misery to the victims, their families and our communities. We all need to work together to stop it.”