The scale of human trafficking in Britain is much bigger than previously thought, with tens of thousands of potential victims across the country, law enforcement agencies announced on Thursday.
"Nobody in law enforcement realised the full scale and extent of this crime," Will Kerr, director of vulnerabilities at the National Crime Agency, told a press conference, adding that the agency first dedicated itself to "looking for" the problem back in January.
The agency has been carrying out combined operations, working with police forces and public sector bodies, and has found evidence that modern slavery is happening in all major cities in the UK as well as in every medium-to-large town.
"The scale and scope of this problem has shocked us," Kerr said as he announced a national campaign aimed at encouraging members of the public to report any suspicious activity.
Previous estimates had put the number of victims in the UK at between 10,000 and 13,000, but Kerr said the NCA now estimates there to be "tens of thousands" of victims.
"We can't [provide an accurate number] because it's a hidden crime," he added, "it's impossible to put a figure on it."
Kerr said that as well as prostitution, people are being trafficked to work in a number of industries, with the most high-risk including fisheries and the maritime industry, agriculture and construction, and food manufacturing and processing.
He also said that victims, often of Vietnamese nationality, were being trafficked and forced to work in illegal cannabis farms.
Kerr said there is a wide age range among victims and a balance of genders, and highlighted one example of a 12-year-old Roma girl who was brought into Britain to work for a family as a domestic servant.
Although victims from 109 different countries have been identified, many come from eastern Europe, Nigeria, or Vietnam, and British criminals make up a high proportion of offenders, who are not discerning in the nationalities of victims that they exploit.
In many cases, victims are not smuggled into the UK but arrive in the country after answering what they believe to be legitimate job adverts, but then find their experience to be significantly different to what they expected.
There are currently 300 active policing operations investigating modern slavery in UK, with the NCA taking the lead on the 13 most serious and organised of these. Kerr said the number of live operations was "significantly more" that at this stage last year.
A surge in operations focusing on labour and sexual exploitation coordinated by the NCA through May and June – codenamed Operation Aidant – led to 111 arrests in the UK and some 130 people identified as potential victims.
Kerr said "the more we look, the more we find", adding that there was a collective responsibility to tackle the problem.
"Modern slavery has rightly been made a priority across law enforcement," he said, "but it is a hidden crime, so the onus is on us to seek it out. The more that we look for modern slavery the more we find 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. The intelligence we are gaining is showing that there are likely to be far more victims out there, and the number of victims in the UK has been underestimated."
Since April the NCA has been hosting the Joint Slavery and Trafficking Analysis Centre, bringing together experts from policing, immigration enforcement, Border Force, HMRC, and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to share and analyse intelligence.
“This is a crime which affects all types of communities across every part of the United Kingdom," Kerr said. "It is difficult to spot because often victims don’t even know they are being exploited. Nevertheless we need those communities to be our eyes and ears.
“There will be people living and working where victims come into contact with everyone else’s so-called normal lives.
“They may see something they feel is not quite right. That might be someone seeming afraid, vulnerable or being controlled, moved around or forced to work against their will. If they do, we need the public to speak to us."
Anyone with suspicions can call their local police on 101 or the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700.
Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Hannah Al-Othman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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