By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON, Jan 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Many modern slavery crimes in Britain are committed by families and middle-aged couples leading seemingly respectable lives, experts said on Monday, confounding the general belief that crime gangs control slavery operations.
At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated to be victims of modern slavery - trapped in forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure is likely to be in the tens of thousands.
Offenders include large human trafficking networks but also ostensibly ordinary people that do not fit the stereotype of violent criminals, said Nadia Wager, a reader in Forensic Psychology at England's University of Huddersfield.
A study she conducted in the Thames Valley in southeast England found most offenders in 2016 were aged 30 to 60 who exploited vulnerable family members or acquaintances in domestic work, sex work, forced labour and to commit drug related crimes.
"The perception in the public mind is (of) big organised criminal gangs but that is not necessarily what we are finding," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The same is true nationwide, said Jakub Sobik of Anti-Slavery International, a London-based charity.
"A large numbers of perpetrators are individuals or small groups of people, including families, who take the opportunity of exploiting people who are vulnerable," he said.
Police in Britain are ramping up investigations into cases of slavery and trafficking, with more than 500 live policing operations into the crimes ongoing, according to the National Crime Agency - dubbed Britain's FBI.
But investigations and media coverage have so far mainly focused on criminal networks, which risks skewing the general understanding of the crime, making it more difficult for members of the public to spot and report modern slavery, Sobik said.
"There is definitely too much emphasis on organised criminal groups in comparison to individuals," he said in an email.
Slavery predominantly affects immigrants and vulnerable people, often working at car washes, nail bars and farms, according to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), Britain's anti-slavery body.
Potential signs include poor hygiene, injury and malnourishment, living in cramped or dirty accommodation, a suspicious manner and seeming under the influence or control of others, said the GLAA.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, 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 http://news.trust.org)
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