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Slavery helpline records “alarming” increase in sexual and criminal exploitation during pandemic

Reports of sexual exploitation are up by 41% in 2020 with nearly a quarter of the cases involving children, according to new figures from the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline.

06/04/21

Slavery helpline records “alarming” increase in sexual and criminal exploitation during pandemic

Reports of sexual and criminal exploitation increased dramatically during the pandemic, according to new figures on the state of modern slavery in the UK.

The figures, published this week (7 April 2021), are part of the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline Annual Assessment, a yearly stock take on UK slavery and human trafficking.

Despite an overall drop in contacts to the Helpline, reports of sexual exploitation were up 41% on the previous year, with nearly a quarter of the cases involving children.

Criminal exploitation, meanwhile, was up by 24%, with a fifth of the cases involving minors. Criminal exploitation includes drugs-related activity, including County Lines, forced shoplifting and forced begging.

Data from the Helpline, which is run by the anti-slavery charity Unseen, helps to shed light on the nature and scale of the problem in the UK.

Its Annual Assessment, which includes data for every policing area in the UK, is one of the most detailed reports produced by the sector. It is used by other charities, the police, local and national governments, and others to inform policy and respond directly to reports of slavery and human trafficking.

The 2020 Assessment will be launched on Wednesday by Dame Sara Thornton, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

Findings include nearly 8,000 contacts in 2020 from victims, professionals working in services such as the NHS, businesses and members of the public.

A potential 3,481 victims of modern slavery were indicated as a result of this contact, with more than 10% of victims being children, up from 7% in the previous year’s figures.

Despite fewer contacts to the Helpline during the pandemic (down nearly 14% to 7,976), the number of modern slavery cases remains fairly consistent: 1,742 in 2020, compared to 1,812 in 2019.

Potential victims came from 80 different nations, with Romania being most common, followed by China, Albania and England.

There was also a 95% increase in reports related to modern slavery in cannabis farms, compared to 2019.

Justine Currell, Executive Director of Unseen and co-author of the Assessment said the figures were “particularly alarming” given that overall contacts to the Helpline decreased during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 and the subsequent economic downturn affected the visibility of the threat in such places as car washes and nail bars. And as you would expect, the proportion of calls from the general public declined during the lockdowns. But this report shows that modern slavery and human trafficking is still alive and unfortunately thriving.

“There is still a general lack of awareness of modern slavery, which could involve as many as 100,000 people in the UK alone, so it’s vital we all learn more about the issue and how to spot the signs of exploitation.”

Dame Sara Thornton, the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner praised the Helpline for assisting professionals in the sector to identify new trends in modern slavery.

“The Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline has provided an important alternative mechanism for those in situations of modern slavery or exploitation to seek help and support.

“Over the past year I have also been particularly impressed with their efforts to produce thematic reports on areas of risk.”

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