The number of victims of human trafficking in the UK rose by more than a fifth last year, with a marked increase in the ranks of people whose labour was forced from them through threats, deception and unpayable debt.
The National Crime Agency identified 3,309 people — including 732 children — as potential victims of human trafficking in 2014, a 21 per cent jump on the previous year.
For the first time, there were almost as many people exploited for labour — working in places such as car washes, construction, factories, food processing and nail bars — as those trafficked for sexual exploitation.
Caroline Young, deputy director of the NCA’s Organised Crime Command, said the general increase in cases, following a similar increase in 2013, was the result of heightened awareness of the crime and where exploitation is taking place.
The agency is “continually disrupting this vicious criminal trade in human misery, which exploits the most vulnerable people, both here and abroad, for financial gain”, she said.
“Victims are being forced to work in private houses and in hospitality, farming, manufacturing and construction industries. In many cases, threats and violence are used to ensure compliance.”
Overall, most victims came from Romania, although the agency identified a 55 per cent increase in cases where victims came from Britain. A relatively small proportion of the total — 322 cases — consisted of people exploited elsewhere before arriving in the UK.
For its 2015 Seasonal Appeal, the Financial Times is working in partnership with Stop The Traffik, an organisation that raises awareness about human trafficking
Theresa May, home secretary, told the Financial Times recently that police and prosecutors have failed to focus enough on human trafficking, with too few prosecutions of the hidden crime.
She said it was important to raise awareness following this year’s passage of anti-trafficking legislation, which she hailed as the first national law of its kind in the world. This law will give police and prosecutors the powers to make more arrests and help more victims.
Last week, Ms May unveiled a modern slavery helpline for potential victims or witnesses to call, with an initial $1m in funding from Google.
The NCA identified 1,139 potential victims of sexual exploitation, 1,017 victims of labour exploitation — a more than 50 per cent increase on 2013 — and 311 victims of criminal exploitation. It identified one potential victim of organ harvesting. A little more than half of potential victims were women.
Those figures are higher than those for the government’s National Referral Mechanism, in which victims are offered counselling and shelter for a minimum of 45 days. The number of people classified as potential victims in that system, which some people choose not to be referred into, shot up by a third last year to 2,340.
Overall, the Home Office has estimated there are between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of modern-day slavery in the UK.
Some victims, notably from west Africa and East Asia, are told by their traffickers when they arrive in the UK that they owe them as much as £45,000 for travel expenses and are forced into prostitution in order to repay the debt. Many potential victims arriving from central and eastern Europe come under the impression that they are being offered a work package that includes transport and accommodation.
To find out more about the FT’s Seasonal Appeal partner, visit Stop the Traffik