Published: 06:00, 19 October 2020
| Updated: 09:25, 19 October 2020
A new approach to tackling modern slavery is being launched in response to a sharp rise in the number of potential victims across north Kent.
Recorded figures are heavily affected by under-reporting due to the complex nature of the issues and vulnerable individuals involved.
But statistics show a 45% year-on-year increase across the UK between January and September 2019 to 7,273 victims.
Trends in Kent mirror the national picture and are likely to share the same modern slavery and human trafficking issues, trends and intelligence gaps.
It shows 77 modern slavery and human trafficking investigations were carried out in the 12 months ending July this year.
Potential victims are identified nationally via the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a framework devised to capture and offer support to those at risk of human trafficking, forced labour, and/or sexual exploitation.
Adopting this measure, 199 NRM and modern slavery notifications were referred in the same year and 11 NRM referrals were made by local authorities, acting as "first responder" organisations, between April and June.
In response, a new strategy to tackle modern slavery in Gravesend is being launched today, to coincide with yesterday’s Anti-Slavery Day.
The plan 'Unhidden: Addressing Modern Slavery in Gravesham', has been produced by Gravesham council, working in conjunction with partners Kent Police and Porchlight, Kent’s largest homeless and vulnerable people charity.
It sets out the council’s approach to tackle the issue as it aims to be proactive in identifying and referring victims for help and safeguarding children and adults by helping to address their support needs.
Also included is a commitment to work with partners to disrupt perpetrators and bring them to justice and ensure that supply chains linked to council services are free from modern slavery.
Launching the strategy, Cllr Shane Mochrie-Cox, Gravesham council’s cabinet member for community and leisure, said: “This demonstrates the council’s real commitment to work with our partner agencies to provide the best support possible to potential victims who come to our attention.
“We recognise that, sadly, slavery, trafficking and exploitation are not issues of the past but very present in areas across the country including our own borough.
"The scale of this largely hidden crime is significant and that is why we need an approach that raises the awareness of it across the board.”
The Labour councillor for the Coldharbour ward added that by working closely with partners, the council will continue to develop a programme of targeted action to encourage potential victims to report their experiences and get the help they need whilst also sending a clear message to offenders that these crimes will not be tolerated in Gravesham.
“The council will have no hesitation in using its powers and encouraging its partners to use theirs to do this,” said Cllr Mochrie-Cox.
“Gravesham council, as well as Gravesham as a community, has a responsibility to ensure that its children, young people and adults are offered the best protection possible from exploitation of this kind which has devastating long-term effects on its victims, their families and the wider community.”
The true scale of modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK is unknown due to the complexity of the crimes.
Those exploited are often vulnerable, meaning meaning victims are frequently reluctant to report their experience, particularly to the police.
UK modern slavery reports dropped by a quarter during the coronavirus lockdown, according to the Home Office figures, but experts fear exploitation methods may have become more covert and masked many cases.
"The council will have no hesitation in using its powers and encouraging its partners to use theirs to do this."
Data obtained by Kent Police indicates the most prevalent forms in north Kent are forced criminality, labour and sexual exploitation.
Victims were most likely to be British, Albanian, Romanian, Polish or Vietnamese.
It should be noted forced criminality linked to county lines gangs – which is reported to have jumped in terms of child exploitation during lockdown – is removed from these statistics as there are separate teams dedicated to tackling these issues.
Paul Withrington, who manages Porchlight’s homelessness outreach services in the area, said: “As a homelessness charity, we sadly encounter many victims of modern slavery.
"Some have been cast onto the streets by organised crime groups who can no longer profit from them. Others have fled their captors and have nowhere to stay.
“Porchlight staff are trained to spot the signs and get specialist support in place for survivors of slavery.
"We’ve shared our knowledge with Gravesham council, and we are glad to be working alongside the council and Kent Police to help everyone we can."
He went on to add modern slavery was an issue across the entire county, but said by working together to encourage victims to come forward and share their stories they could stop the exploitation of vulnerable people.
Detective Inspector Kris Eberlein of Kent Police’s serious organised crime department, said: “Human trafficking and modern day slavery have no place in our society and we are committed to pursuing those who are responsible for the exploitation of others.
“In recent years, we have worked closely with our partners and our combined resources have helped identify and protect vulnerable people.
“We have also achieved meaningful results for victims in the courts but recognise offending of this nature is likely to be underreported.
“No one should have to endure working in servitude and we will continue to work with our partners to identify and target the perpetrators of such offending.
“I would also encourage the public to familiarise themselves with the potential signs of modern day slavery and, where necessary, make a report.”
While the signs can be hard to identify, there are various which could indicate a situation of exploitation that you can be aware of.
These include someone who appears to be under the control of someone else and reluctant to interact with others, does not have personal identification, or is not able to move around freely.
They may also possess few personal belongings or wear the same clothes every day.
Other signs someone could be in slavery are they appear reluctant to talk to strangers or the authorities, appear frightened or withdrawn, or may be dropped off and collected for work in the same way at unusual times of the day or night.
To report a suspicion or seek advice, call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 0121700 or police on 101.
You can also contact a number of other organisations including Crimestoppers, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and Anti-Slavery International.