More than 10,000 suspected modern slavery victims were identified in the UK last year, figures show, marking a plateau largely caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
There were 10,613 potential victims of trafficking, slavery and forced labour referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in 2020, according to Home Office statistics.
This is slightly down from 10,616 in 2019, which was a record high and up more than 50% in a year.
It is the first time referrals have fallen year-on-year, with the plateau primarily thought to have resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions.
The Home Office said lockdown measures had meant victims were less likely to interact with first responders, and led to reduced travel to the UK.
There were a further 2,178 reports made by public authorities to the Home Office of suspected adult victims who did not consent to enter the NRM.
The figures also show that, as of February 2021, more than 18,000 potential victims were awaiting a conclusive decision on their case.
To access support and have recognition of their circumstances in the UK, victims of slavery and human trafficking have to be assessed under the NRM.
This determines whether, on the balance of probabilities, they have “reasonable grounds” for statutory access to medical, psychological and legal support, meaning they are considered potential victims.
They are then assessed again and, if considered to be a confirmed victim, given a “positive conclusive grounds” decision.
Of the 18,112 potential victims awaiting a conclusive grounds decision as of February 1, 8,665 were suspected victims referred to the NRM in 2020.
Some 10,608 reasonable grounds decisions were made in 2020, along with 3,454 conclusive grounds decisions, a slight fall from 2019.
Victims waited an average almost a year (339 days) between first being referred into the system and receiving a conclusive grounds decision in 2020.
Of the potential victims referred last year, 74% were male and 26% female, and the most common nationalities were people from the UK, Albania and Vietnam.
Referrals of adults decreased compared with 2019, but there was a rise in potential child victims.
Referrals linked to County Lines activity, exploitation by drugs gangs, had risen almost third (31%) in a year, with 1,544 referrals in 2020.
Of these, 81% were male children.
County Lines activity now accounts for 40% of child referrals for suspected criminal exploitation and 15% of overall referrals, the data shows.
Children made up 57% of referrals for exploitation suspected to have occurred in the UK only.
Major Kathy Betteridge, director of anti trafficking and modern slavery for The Salvation Army, said the plateau in referrals should not breed complacency.
She said: “We believe many are still in the living nightmare of slavery without knowing how to get help.
“As we face the biggest economic downturn in recent years, we anticipate the fallout from the pandemic will leave many more people in poverty and at risk of exploitation.
“Further lockdown restrictions mean we are spending more time at home and there are fewer physical interactions for suspicions to be raised.
“When the public do leave their homes and as domestic and international transport networks reopen, we need them to know how to spot the signs of slavery, how to report it and spread awareness.”
Some physical signs that someone may be a victim of modern slavery include looking unkempt, malnourished or having untreated injuries.
They could also include someone paying for a person’s travel or speaking for them, a person being picked up and dropped off from work at unusual times or being unsure of their address.
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