UK anti-slavery helpline records fewer cases due to coronavirus

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain’s modern slavery helpline recorded an overall drop in suspected cases and potential victims last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, although reports of sexual and criminal exploitation rose, the charity running it said on Wednesday.

The anti-trafficking charity Unseen said in its annual report that the number of possible victims identified in 2020 decreased by about a quarter to 3,481 while cases dipped by 4% to 1,742, driven by a steep fall in labour exploitation cases.

“COVID-19 and the subsequent economic downturn affected the visibility of the threat in such places as car washes and nail bars,” said Justine Currell, executive director of Unseen.

“But this report shows that modern slavery and human trafficking is still alive and unfortunately thriving.”

Set up in 2016 after Unseen received 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) in funding from the search giant Google, the helpline takes calls from the public reporting suspicious situations, survivors seeking help and businesses wanting information.

Activists have voiced concern that COVID-19 has hindered efforts to support victims, as data showed last month that the number of suspected slaves referred to the government for help - 10,613 - stalled last year for the first time since 2012.

Unseen’s helpline also recorded its first drop in labour exploitation cases, which fell by about a third to 578 yet remained the most frequently flagged form of abuse.

But cases involving sexual exploitation and forced criminality - from people being made to sell drugs or beg on the streets - both increased, while suspected child victims rose to 10% from 7% of all possible victims in 2019, Unseen said.

Officials and activists have expressed concerns about a rise in the number of children being exploited in the “county lines” drug trade during coronavirus lockdowns.

While reports to the helpline from the public fell, a rising share of calls came directly from potential victims. Britain’s anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton, said the service was an “important alternative mechanism” for survivors to seek help.

Unseen said it had referred about 1,582 possible cases to law enforcement agencies, safeguarding teams and NGOs, but did not provide any information about the outcomes of such action.

In 2019, the Thomson Reuters Foundation revealed that of 320 suspected labour abuse cases sent by Unseen to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority - Britain’s anti-slavery agency - about 10 led to investigations with one resulting in arrest.

“Reports to the helpline aren’t corroborated or tracked to their conclusion, so there is limited knowledge of whether they turn out to be cases of modern slavery,” said Emily Kenway, an independent expert and author on modern slavery.

“While it is important that the helpline exists as a channel for potential victims to reach support, its figures should not be taken as hard evidence,” she said. “Helpline reports are evidence of public awareness, not changes in victimisation.”

A study last year by NGO Justice and Care and The Centre for Social Justice think-tank said Britain may be home to at least 100,000 slaves - 10 times more than a 2013 official estimate.

($1 = 0.7229 pounds)

Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit