Published: 06:00, 11 June 2019
The numbers of modern slavery cases in Kent have risen in each of the last three years, figures reveal.
Examples of modern slavery include domestic servitude, forced sex work, or labour exploitation in industries such as agriculture, or in businesses like nail salons and car washes.
It can also involve criminal exploitation, such as in cases where children or vulnerable adults are recruited into the drugs trade.
A recent parliamentary report on modern slavery concluded that the practice "pervades every community" in the UK, and warned the number of victims could be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.
Modern slavery was introduced as a single, specific offence under the Modern Slavery Act, which came into effect in March 2015.
Since then, Kent Police Police has recorded 456 instances, according to Home Office data up to end of December last year.
Experts have warned a lack of support for victims could be hindering investigations, after the rate of offenders being charged fell to a record low across England and Wales.
In 2018, Kent Police carried out 171 investigations into slavery offences, 143 of which had been concluded by the time the data was released.
Of these, just 16, or 11%, resulted in charges being brought.
"The lack of support and stability we provide victims is no doubt partly to blame for these low figures" - The Human Trafficking Foundation
Difficulty gathering evidence was cited as the reason for not bringing charges in 51% of cases – 22% where the victim didn’t support further action being taken, and 29% where they did.
Police closed the case without identifying a suspect in 36% of cases.
Police forces across England and Wales have recorded over 10,000 slavery offences since April 2015 – almost half of them in 2018 alone.
In 2018, just 3% of concluded cases ended in charges being brought, compared to 19% between April and December 2015.
The Human Trafficking Foundation said modern slavery cases were some of the most complex police may ever have to deal with, involving highly vulnerable and traumatised victims who may not want to help the police.
A spokesman said: “The lack of support and stability we provide victims is no doubt partly to blame for these low figures.
“Survivors of any serious crime would struggle to be able to trust authorities if they live in unstable accommodation with barely anything to live on, and do not know where they will be housed in a month or whether they will be made to return to a place that they know could lead to re-exploitation.”
She added giving victims more incentives, such as the right to remain in the UK, would encourage more to help police "put their traffickers behind bars".
A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service said when police did charge a suspect, they prosecuted 67% of them.
A Home Office spokesman said it was committed to stamping out the "abhorrent" crime.
“Our world-leading Modern Slavery Act has led to thousands of victims being protected and hundreds of convictions," he said.
"But we know there is more to do and are working with police to see what more can be done to improve their response to this terrible crime."