A report by a British government commission on modern slavery and human trafficking, released last month, described a sprawling practice that ensnares tens of thousands of people in Britain. Many are immigrants. But the high number of victims from Britain was an unexpected shock – cases involving British citizens like the teenage girl were the third-largest grouping, after those involving Albanians or Vietnamese.
A majority of child-trafficking victims were also found to be British. From nail salons and carwashes to farms and construction sites, thousands of vulnerable adults and children are being traded as commodities and are often subjected to violence and abuse, the report found.
“We kind of let it slip that we have vulnerable people in our own communities,” Kevin Hyland, Britain’s first independent anti-slavery commissioner, said in an interview. “And they are vulnerable for a number of reasons, not just because they come from poverty. It may be that they have learning difficulties, educational issues or addiction.”
For months, no one noticed as the 14-year-old girl, whose identity is being concealed for her protection because her captors are still at large, sneaked out of her apartment before dawn, skipped school and came home late, once with bruises all over her body. No one saw the deep scratches on her arms and legs when she started to hurt herself.
Her mother acknowledged neglecting her daughter at times, occasionally staying away from their home for several nights at a time and ignoring calls from her daughter’s school reporting that she had failed to attend.
Then, during the school holidays in July last year, the teenager disappeared. It was not until seven months later, after her mother said she had resigned herself to the fact that her daughter might be dead, that a detective told her that she had been kidnapped and enslaved.
“Enslaved?” the mother, whose identity is also being concealed to protect her daughter, recalled asking the officer. “I just kept repeating that word. I didn’t understand it,” she said in a London park where she often goes to try to manage a panic disorder that developed after her daughter’s disappearance.
During the months when her daughter was missing, “I thought about every possible scenario that could have happened to her,” her mother said. “But slavery? I didn’t even know that happened in England.”
Britain recorded 2,255 modern slavery offences across England and Wales last year, a 159 per cent increase from the previous year. According to the government commission, the rise suggests that, while slavery might be increasing, so is awareness among the police and public. The report also said that different agencies were cooperating better.
But a recent inspection of police practice found significant deficiencies and inconsistencies that left many victims exposed and vulnerable to further exploitation.
“Victims who come into contact with the police are not always recognised as such and therefore remain in the hands of those who are exploiting them. Others are arrested as offenders or illegal immigrants,” the British Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found.
“People often get picked up when they are hanging around, either at hostels or soup kitchens,” said Anne Read, an anti-trafficking response coordinator for the Salvation Army, a charity that manages the government support system for adult victims. “And, of course, now there is the internet, which enables predators to enter people’s homes,” she added.