Catholics can be the “eyes and ears” of their communities, alerting the authorities to the “vile trade” of human trafficking, the lead bishop for migration said this week, as newly-released figures revealed the extent of modern slavery in the UK.
Comments by Bishop Patrick Lynch came as the National Crime Agency (NCA) said on Monday that the number of potential victims of modern slavery rose by more than a third last year.
In 2017, 5,145 people were recorded by the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government framework for identifying potential victims of slavery and exploitation. This represents a 35 per cent increase from 2016, when 3,804 referrals were made.
For the first time British citizens were the largest nationality recorded in the figures – up from 326 in 2016 to 819 in 2017. This is partly due to a rise in referrals of minors being exploited by gangs to sell drugs, explained a statement released by the NCA. The next most commonly referred nationalities were Albanian and Vietnamese.
Bishop Patrick Lynch, who is closely involved with the Church’s work on ending slavery, called the statistics “shocking, but not surprising”. He said: “The increase, particularly around the number of young people being exploited by criminal gangs, shows that every day in and around the UK innocent men, women and children are being sold for profit and forced to undertake activities against their will.
“Whilst it is alarming that the numbers of referrals especially of children has risen, it is important to remember the reality that many more people whose cases are not brought to light or to the appropriate authorities are, in fact, caught in slavery. One of our tasks as the Church is to build trust with those communities that are vulnerable whether from overseas or the UK so that more reporting of cases takes place.”
The report found that forced labour accounted for 2,352 cases - almost half of all referrals. As many as a third of cases involved suspected victims of sexual exploitation and 2,000 children were identified as being at risk of modern slavery.
Bishop Lynch called on Catholics to be the “eyes and ears” of their communities, alerting police to the “heinous and often hidden crime of human trafficking”.
The Church is already contributing in several ways, he added, by training Catholics to recognise “signs and symptoms of modern day slavery”; by running safe houses for victims and survivors; and through the efforts of the Santa Marta Group. The group is an alliance of senior police officers and Catholic clergy and Religious from around the world who work together to combat the problem.
The most recent figures from the Home Office estimate there are 13,000 people trapped in modern slavery in Britain. The Director of the NCA, Will Kerr, said an increased awareness of the problem and greater reporting explained the large increase in referral numbers. He added that the statistics were likely to underestimate the “true scale” of the problem in the UK.
PICTURE: The Santa Marta Group conference on human trafficking in London in 2014. Image/PA.