Video report by ITV News Presenter Julie Etchingham
There could be more than 10 times the number of victims of modern slavery than estimated – and the pandemic threatens to fuel a further increase.
According to the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and Justice and Care, there are at least 100,000 victims, which dwarfs the 10,000 working figure estimated by a government study in 2017.
The economic and social cost of modern slavery is believed to be between £3.3 billion and £4.3 billion – but this sum is based on up to 13,000 victims, meaning the true cost could be far greater.
“Nobody knows the true scale and cost of the crime, but based on a new police data analysis tool we believe there could be at least 100,000 victims in the UK, with the actual number likely to be even greater,” a report published by the centre on Monday stated.
It also warned of a "serious risk" that coronavirus could "lead to a rise in modern slavery and human trafficking.
“The main drivers of modern slavery – poverty, lack of opportunity and other vulnerabilities – will intensify, resulting in an increased risk of exploitation and abuse.”
Five years after the Modern Slavery Act was passed - in what was Theresa May’s crowning glory in the Home Office – thousands of children continue to be trafficked.
The CSJ reported people of all nationalities and backgrounds, including British citizens, are exploited for profit by “ruthless criminal networks”.
They are tricked, taken and coerced into sexual slavery, crime, hard labour and domestic servitude, with forced addictions increasingly used as a method of control.
A Vietnamese modern slavery survivor, referred to as ‘N’ to protect her identity, told ITV News of the horrors victims of this crime face.
'I fought back, but I was beaten up a lot': A modern slavery survivor, voiced by an actor, tells Julie Etchingham how her chin was 'torn off'
The woman was found in a street in Salford earlier this year after she managed to run away from her controllers – around 18 months after she was initially sent to China to work off a debt amassed by her ex-husband.
When she finally escaped in Salford, she did not even know she was in England.
“They brought me to a massage parlour and of course the next day, the next evening, I didn't do massage but I had to do a service to a person,” she said of her experiences.
“He was a very old man and we did intercourse but not like a husband and wife... I was raped.
“At the beginning, I didn't accept that kind of treatment so I fought back, but I was beaten up a lot.
“At one time, they beat me up and hit me hard on my chin [which] was broken and got torn off.
"I had to have stitches on but they didn't numb my chin so it was very painful.”
While she was in China, she had her passport and phone taken from her and was forced into sex work.
If she refused or tried to escape she was beaten.
All the money paid to N was taken from her by her controllers.
A couple of months later, she was taken to a warehouse and put into a container for seven days.
She was taken to another container in another warehouse, and eventually ended up in the back of a lorry with other people hiding behind boxes.
It is believed this is when she was taken to the UK, where she was again forced into sex work.
She managed to escape from the premises after a “client” fell asleep and she saw there were no guards around.
When police found her, she did not even know the date.
Despite the number of victims discovered skyrocketing in the past five years, convictions have barely jumped.
In the year ending March 2019 there were 322 completed prosecutions for modern slavery-related crimes and 219 convictions served.
During the same period, 7,525 adults and children were identified as potential victims of modern slavery.
The result is human traffickers and organised crime groups are “running riot in too many communities”, according to the CSJ.
Christian Guy, chief executive of rescue and support network Justice and Care, warned such low conviction rates – described as “appallingly low” in the report - could lead to Britain being seen as a “soft touch”.
“It is a complex crime and police, I think, are doing their best but there is a sense that trafficking is too difficult,” he told ITV News.
“Sometimes it gets pushed away and working with government becomes difficult and the CPS can become risk-averse and we don't prosecute on the Modern Slavery Act - we've got to change that.
“We've got to train our police officers and our judges and we've got to see our prosecutors go after this crime with real energy and vigour.
“Because if we don't, traffickers will run rings around us and they will consider the risk far too low and the profits far too high and Britain will be a soft touch.”
The report states political leadership has “waned” since the 2015 act was passed, which has created a “false sense of security” around the issue.
Victims often spend months or years in limbo until a decision is made, the CSJ adds.
For example, 80% of people referred to the National Referral Mechanism in 2019 were still waiting for a response at the end of December 2019 – a total of 8,429.
Anti-slavery commissioner Dame Sara Thornton told ITV News victims need to be treated as such by police.
“I think the difficulty is the bureaucracy of the system, where they feel they are having to prove they are victims, we don't treat victims of any other crime like that,” she said.
“I would much prefer decision-making to be taken locally with different agencies who maybe know the victim and making a much better, informed decision about whether someone is a victim and about the support they need.
“That's the purpose of it, but I think sometimes it ends up in a sort of immigration-like bureaucratic system and I think that's not ideal.
“I am encouraged that ministers are beginning to look at that I think enough people have said ‘this is not good, it's taking too long, it's not good for victims, can we have a good look at it?’
“And I understand that's now what they are going to do.”