Understanding modern slavery

There will always be slavery - it has not been relegated to the past. Thousands of people in the UK are currently living as slaves. That means their freedom has been taken and they are forced to work against their will.

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Modern slavery is a crime. It is present in every single community in the UK.

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What is modern slavery?

The term ‘modern slavery’ encompasses both trafficking (the arranging or facilitating of the travel of another, whether into, out of or within the UK, with a view to that person being exploited) and exploitation itself, which can take place both alongside and independently of trafficking.

Exploitation can take many forms, including sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, domestic servitude and exploitation in criminal activity, such as county lines drug supply, shoplifting and cannabis cultivation. The vast majority of modern slavery offending is motivated by profit. Modern slavery is almost unique in that the repeat exploitation of victims generates ongoing profit for offenders, which can result in substantial financial gain.

Victims are forced, coerced or deceived into exploitation, becoming trapped in a situation they cannot escape. Exploiters may be part of a large criminal organisation, a smaller operation or lone offenders. Usually they are highly organised and adept at disguising their activities.

50 million people are estimated to be trapped in some form of modern slavery in the world today.
There are an estimated over 136,000 victims in the UK*.

Victims are men, women and children of all ages, ethnicities and nationalities. Those we know about are just the tip of the iceberg - many victims never come forward to the authorities and continue to live miserable lives with no freedom or dignity.

In 2022, 16,938 potential victims were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM - the Government framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support). Victims from more than 130 countries across the world have been trafficked and exploited in the UK but in the last three years the top country of origin of suspected victims has been the UK.

The real number of victims in the UK could be many times higher - the Global Slavery Index believes there are around 136,000 victims living in slavery in the UK.

Survivors tell stories of being sold a better life. In the case of children drawn into gangs and county lines, they often speak of feeling a sense of belonging and identity. They are often vulnerable, perhaps coming from difficult family backgrounds, poverty or areas where there is little work. They may be offered a job, a chance to get off the streets or to build a new life for themselves and make money. Those who offer these opportunities may even organise their travel to a different country, controlling every aspect of their trip.

The job they are offered turns out to be a lie and instead they are forced to work in difficult and degrading conditions, with little or no pay. The threat of violence, to themselves or their families, hangs over them and traps them in their situation. Even if their trafficker does not physically control them, a mistrust of authority may stop them from going to the police.

*Statistics are taken from the Global Slavery Index and the Centre for Social Justice, 'It Still Happens Here'.

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What is human trafficking?

There is a common misunderstanding that human trafficking is the same as smuggling people illegally across borders. In fact, it does not always involve crossing international borders - a lot of human trafficking happens within countries, including within the UK.

Human trafficking is moving someone by means of force, fraud, coercion or deception, with the aim of exploiting them. It is a form of modern slavery.

In 2020, 63% of victims were traffficked within the UK - many of whom were British. British people are trafficked in numerous ways - one of the most obvious being 'county lines' where children and young people are forced or coerced into acting as drug couriers.

What makes people vulnerable to exploitation?

Victims of modern slavery come from all different backgrounds and can be any age or gender. Whether British or from abroad, there is usually a 'vulnerability' that exploiters use to target them. These could include:

  • homelessness
  • immigration status and/or language difficulties
  • drug or alcohol dependency
  • a difficult family background
  • mental health problems
  • childhood/under 18s
  • geographic instability.

They are often 'recruited' in person although increasingly, particularly in the sex industry or county lines drug trafficking, they may also be drawn in through social media or online job adverts. The core of this crime is deception with victims often targeted, coerced or deceived - not realising they are being controlled and exploited.

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