LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police in Britain are ramping up efforts to investigate cases of modern slavery, yet the true scale of the crime is hugely underestimated, the UK’s anti-slavery chief said on Monday.
Kevin Hyland, appointed in 2014 as part of Britain’s widely hailed Modern Slavery Act, called in his second annual report for greater support for slavery victims, and urged businesses to do more to ensure their supply chains are free of forced labor.
At least 13,000 people are estimated by the government to be victims of modern slavery - from sexual exploitation to domestic servitude - but police say the figure is the tip of the iceberg.
“I deem this (the 13,000 estimate) far too modest, with the true number in the tens of thousands,” Hyland said in a statement. “We must continue to prevent this abhorrent abuse.”
Data from the report showed police in Britain recorded 2,255 modern slavery crimes in the past financial year, an increase of 159 percent from 870 crimes during the same period for 2015/16.
Hyland said he was pleased by the figures, which showed that six in 10 reported cases of potential slavery were officially investigated, up from just 28 percent for the previous period between August 2015 and September 2016.
Britain’s Modern Slavery Act has been lauded as a milestone in the anti-slavery fight for cracking down on traffickers with life sentences, forcing businesses to check their supply chains for slavery, and protecting people at risk of being enslaved.
Yet the British government’s scheme for identifying and supporting victims of slavery and trafficking, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), has several flaws, according to Hyland, who said improving the system was now his top priority.
The report called for a complete reform of the system, including immediate support for victims to stop re-trafficking, training for staff to improve identification of victims, and a focus on long-term care to ensure they can rebuild their lives.
“The safety of victims is paramount ... their protection is non-negotiable,” Hyland said. “Policies and processes mean nothing if they do not keep the victim at the center.”
More and more firms in Britain are publishing statements detailing how they are tackling modern slavery, Hyland said.
The Modern Slavery Act requires businesses with a turnover of more than 36 million pounds ($48 million) to each year outline the actions that they have taken to combat slavery in their supply chains.
Hyland also urged greater international collaboration within the anti-slavery movement to tackle the evolving, global crime.
Britain last month pledged to double its aid spending on global projects tackling modern slavery to 150 million pounds.
“Potential victims identified in the UK in 2016 came from 108 countries; this is precisely why it is crucial to address the crime both at source and en route,” Hyland said, referring to top source countries such as Vietnam, Nigeria and Romania.
The report comes a month after the first joint effort by key anti-slavery groups to estimate the number of victims worldwide.
The International Labor Organization, rights group Walk Free Foundation and International Organization for Migration said that at least 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery in 2016 - either trapped in forced labor or forced marriages.
Anti-Slavery International welcomed Hyland’s decision to put the care and protection of victims at the heart of his report.
Yet the organization was disappointed by the omission of foreign domestic workers, its program manager for the UK and Europe, Klara Skrivankova, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“One area that should be improved ... is the situation of overseas domestic workers, whose visa arrangements make their status dependent on their employers, and therefore making them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” she said.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org