Concerns for modern slavery victims as countries unlock the lockdown

As lockdown restrictions are lifted, the number of people who are being exploited, or who are trapped in modern slavery, is expected to rise.

In the UK, there are concerns around the reopening of some of the types of businesses known to have risks around exploitation, such as nail bars, factories and car washes, as well as over the increase in pop-up brothels. The risk is potentially higher, with struggling businesses and employers unable to pay fair wages.

Hope for Justice believes that the criminal gangs behind modern slavery have “adapted” to COVID-19, and transported victims to areas where there is demand, to meet the need for farm workers in the agricultural sector, for example.

Phillipa Roberts, Hope for Justice’s Director of Legal Policy, said: “During COVID-19, child trafficking and human trafficking for criminal exploitation has continued, if not increased, with traffickers simply adapting to the lockdown and continuing to target those most vulnerable.

“There have been some reports of decreases in reporting of trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labour during lockdown. However, these victims may not have had the opportunity to speak to agencies who could assist them during lockdown as many services have been working remotely. Also, Hope for Justice’s experience is that where no work is available, traffickers may provide some level of food and shelter but merely build up a bonded debt until their victims can work again and in the interim exploit victims in other ways, such as fraud.”

During the lockdown, the number of vulnerable children is likely to have increased and it is also expected that more potential victims will be identified who may have been unable to access services or advice during the pandemic.

In the first three months of this year, 2,871 suspected victims of modern slavery were identified in the UK and referred to the government’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM). This was a 14 per cent fall compared to the previous three months, which was especially unusual after many years of continuous quarter-on-quarter increases in the number of victims identified.

However, the Home Office said this reduction was due to the Coronavirus pandemic. One of the reasons for the decline is believed to be the under-reporting of the crime at a time when people are self-isolating and businesses have closed.

Even with the quarter-on-quarter decline, however, the figure of 2,871 victims for January to March 2020 was still a 33% increase on the same period in 2019.

Hope for Justice has seen an increase in referrals of potential victims of modern slavery from agencies largely over telephone and email. In the charity’s experience, survivors have been impacted by isolation and challenges in accessing the services that would normally help them to feel connected and supported – vulnerabilities which may lead to re-trafficking.

As lockdowns ease, Hope for Justice is urging members of the public to learn how to spot the signs of human trafficking and to know how to respond.

– Does the individual seem to be in debt to someone?
– Are there more people living in a house than would normally be expected?
– Do the people living in the house get picked up in the early morning and returned late at night?
– Are they fearful of telling other about their situation?
– Do they have limited freedom of movement?
– Are they fearful or police or authorities?
– Do they exhibit signs of physical and psychological trauma?

To learn more of the indicators of modern slavery click here.