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Police and prosecutors have failed to focus enough on human trafficking, with too few prosecutions of the hidden crime, Theresa May has told the Financial Times.

In an interview, the UK Home Secretary said it was important to raise awareness of human trafficking — which official indicators suggest may have risen rapidly — following this year’s passage of anti-trafficking legislation she hails as the first national law of its kind in the world.

“I do not think this is an area of activity that they [the police] have focused on and been sufficiently aware of,” Ms May said.

“A small number of prosecutions has been an issue, which is why we have streamlined the legislation, bringing various pieces of legislation together in the Modern Slavery Act, giving them some extra powers, strengthening the sentencing provisions, so to put a greater focus on this,” she added.

For this year’s seasonal appeal, the FT is working in partnership with Stop the Traffik, an organisation that raises awareness of human trafficking.

In one of the latest cases involving the crime, a British couple were jailed this week for six years for keeping a Nigerian immigrant as a domestic slave for more than two decades. The most common form of trafficking in the country is sexual exploitation, followed by labour exploitation. Overall, 2,340 people were officially reported as potential victims of the crime in 2014 — a 34 per cent increase on the previous year.

Part of the increase can be attributed to heightened awareness but also to a greater willingness to come forward, Ms May said.

“Unless we know where people are who are being exploited then it is not possible to provide the support that they need and, of course, to find the evidence to catch the perpetrators, which is important,” she added. “Since it is such a hidden crime, it is very difficult to get a handle on exactly how much has taken place.”

She said on one occasion the police had taken more than a year to charge about eight people for offences before realising they were all interlinked. “When they actually uncovered the slave gang, they discovered, of course, that in some cases these people had been doing this because of their conditions in slavery,” she said.

Some critics say the authorities are not doing as much as they can to help people suffering abuse.

Official figures show a big contrast between the treatment of potential trafficking victims from EU states — who are consistently the most likely to be deemed victims of trafficking with an associated right of shelter — and the handling of non-EU nationals. Although the most common countries of origin of potential trafficking victims are Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam, their citizens are often those still waiting for an official decision on their status.

Victims are often hesitant to contact the authorities, out of fear of deportation or ending up in a worse situation with no job or home at all.

But Ms May emphasised the contribution made by the new legislation, which establishes the post of anti-slavery commissioner and requires all businesses operating in Britain with turnover greater than £36m to publish a statement on their website detailing the steps they have taken to eradicate slavery in their supply chain.

“I am hoping that the Modern Slavery Act will raise awareness so that people start asking these extra questions,” she said.

This week she also announced a UK modern slavery helpline, with initial $1m funding from Google.

Kevin Hyland, the former police officer who has become the country’s first anti-slavery commissioner, concurred that the police needed to become more aware of the issue.

“My team was out talking to police recently, and some of the officers hadn’t even heard of the Modern Slavery Act, and that was in London,” he said.

To find out more about the FT’s Seasonal Appeal partner, visit Stop the Traffik

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