Hundreds of suspected victims of modern slavery identified in Bedfordshire
The figure was the fifth highest of any UK police force area
Almost 400 potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking were identified in Bedfordshire last year - the fifth highest of any UK police force area.
In total 399 cases were referred into the national referral mechanism (NRM) in the county across 2019, according to Government figures released earlier this month.
The figure was the fifth highest of any UK police force area, with Bedfordshire Police investigating more offences than their counterparts from larger forces such as Merseyside.
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The NRM is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support, with the investigation then undertaken by the police.
Police and charity bosses have now urged the public to keep an eye out for possible signs of exploitation, with these offences still likely to be taking place during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Victims of slavery can come from many backgrounds, but people with poor mental health, alcohol and drug abuse issues or those with poor English language skills are particularly at risk.
A number of changes have been identified as having a potential impact on modern slavery victims due to Covid-19, besides their risk of being infected with the virus.
The closure of restaurants, car washes, nail bars and a decline in the number of visitors to brothels may result in the eviction of victims from their accommodation, making them homeless.
Victims may be moved to other roles or types of exploitation as required by their exploiters, as organised crime groups look to maximise their profits during the crisis.
Tighter restrictions, worsening conditions and increased violence and abuse may also be suffered by victims, as exploiters respond to the crisis and try to remain profitable.
Detective Chief Superintendent Nick Bellingham, the Bedfordshire Police lead for serious and organised crime, said: “Police and our partners across Bedfordshire have a strong track record when it comes to identifying and responding to modern slavery and exploitation.
“Organised criminal networks ruthlessly exploit children and other vulnerable people, employing violence and intimidation to bully and coerce people into helping these gangs line their own pockets.
“This may be drugs gangs using children to carry and sell drugs or weapons; groups trafficking women and forcing them into sex work, or vulnerable people being forced to work in industries such as agriculture, nail bars, car washes or restaurants.
“The abhorrence of slavery is still happening today in our communities, even in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, and we need everybody’s help to report things to us and help us stop it.”
NRM referrals in Bedfordshire increased by 51 per cent last year, up from the 261 cases identified in the previous 12 months.
The majority of these cases came via referrals from the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre near Bedford.
Despite many of these offences taking place overseas, Bedfordshire Police is responsible for carrying out initial enquiries into these modern slavery allegations, such as interviewing the victims.
However, more offences of modern slavery and exploitation were identified as taking place in the county as well.
Bedfordshire Police submitted more NRMs last year compared to the previous 12 months, while the number of NRMs submitted by the county’s three local authorities increased from 12 in 2018 to 41 last year - 38 of the potential victims identified by the county’s local authorities were children.
Of the potential victims identified by Bedfordshire Police, 68 per cent were suspected of being victims of labour exploitation.
Suspected victims of criminal and sexual exploitation were also referred into the NRM by the force last year.
Justine Currell, executive director of the anti-slavery charity Unseen and Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for Bedfordshire, said: “These figures show that modern slavery and human trafficking is sadly happening all around us.
“Bringing together partners from across Bedfordshire and across the eastern region is so important to share knowledge and understanding so that we can target the criminals who prey on the vulnerable.
“We must remain vigilant, even in these unprecedented times as exploiters know no bounds and will do what they can to make a profit from the misery of others.
"If you think someone may be in modern slavery, call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700’.
Anyone with any information about modern slavery and exploitation can call police on 101 or via www.bedfordshire.police.uk/report.