Fewer modern slavery victims identified in Bedfordshire
Fewer slavery victims have been identified to police in Bedfordshire amid the coronavirus pandemic, figures reveal.
Home Office data reveals a drop in modern slavery cases referred to Bedfordshire Police, with 227 recorded last year compared to 399 cases recorded in 2019.
They included 78 children – equating to around 34% of all referrals.
But anti-slavery charity Unseen has warned of a potential increase in victims following the coronavirus pandemic, adding that the UK's economic downturn has created more vulnerable people who could be at risk of exploitation.
Across the UK, 10,613 potential victims were referred to police last year – broadly in line with the record 10,616 identified in 2019.
Between January and March this year, almost 3,000 further potential victims were flagged, a slight increase on the same period in 2020.
Of those, 48 were identified to police in Bedfordshire.
Modern slavery can involve domestic servitude, forced labour, sexual or criminal exploitation.
Unseen said the closure of recognised slavery hotspots – such as car washes and nail bars – during lockdown periods in the UK meant potential victims were less visible during the pandemic, when referrals linked to adults fell nationally.
But there was an increase across the UK in cases involving children, who are more likely to be exploited at the hands of drugs gangs.
Referrals linked to “county lines” activity, which sees gangs using vulnerable people to transport drugs from cities to small towns, rose by almost a third nationally in 2020, with male children identified as potential victims in four out of five of those cases.
A spokeswoman for the Human Trafficking Foundation called for a national strategy to tackle the exploitation of youngsters and said: "The rise in British cases involving children highlights how increasingly acute child criminal exploitation is now in this country and that not enough sadly is being done to tackle it."
Those identified as possible victims by police forces, councils or other recognised authorities are referred to the Home Office for support via the National Referral Mechanism.
Until 2020, NRM referrals had increased every year since recording began in 2014.
The Home Office said restrictions amid the pandemic are likely to have caused a plateau in referral numbers.
Unseen's Justine Currel said: “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 as fewer people were out and about.
“Now we’re emerging from lockdown, we’re seeing contacts significantly increasing.
“It’s too early to say how many of these contacts will result in victims of modern slavery being identified."