Slavery referrals in Britain fall during pandemic amid fears victims are falling deeper into exploitation
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By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, June 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Reports of suspected modern slavery in Britain are down for the first time since 2016, the government said on Thursday, raising concerns that lockdown is pushing victims deeper underground.
Campaigners say the shutdown had stopped victims being seen or seeking help, with frontline services focused on COVID-19.
About 2,870 possible victims were referred to the government for support in the first quarter of the year - down 14% from the previous three months and the first such decrease in four years, data published by the Home Office (interior ministry) revealed.
Labour exploitation was the main complaint for adults while a growing number of possible child victims were linked to the "county lines" drug trade, with gangs using children as mules.
The Home Office said the drop was partly down to the effects of Britain's response to the pandemic, with people instructed at the end of March to stay home and most businesses told to close.
Anti-slavery activists said the lockdown - eased this week - may have driven victims who worked in nail bars and car washes underground and further into debt bondage as they can no longer work to pay off what they owe to their traffickers.
"The drop (in referrals) is not, unfortunately, because exploitation isn't happening," said Kate Roberts, UK and Europe Manager for Anti-Slavery International.
"People have had fewer opportunities to seek help or be identified and are more fearful of escaping as many frontline services are not able to operate, or have been diverted during lockdown," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
Authorities also face a gap in their intelligence on victim movements in lockdown, according to Letícia Ishibashi, Networks Officer at the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX).
This week, Britain's anti-slavery agency, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, said it was operating at almost full capacity and would target sectors most at risk of abuse as businesses start to reopen.
Anti-slavery commissioner Sara Thornton last month said the country must be vigilant against traffickers post-lockdown, warning of potential exploitation in industries such as hospitality that will be in a rush to recruit.
A record 10,627 suspected slaves were identified in 2019 - up by 52% in a year - while the number of calls about labour abuse to the country's anti-slavery helpline at workplaces from hotels to construction sites rose by almost half last year.
People who say they have been enslaved enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and access care, from housing and healthcare to legal aid, while the government considers their claim. The process can take from six weeks to several years.
Despite being hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain's landmark 2015 law has faced widespread criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive companies to tackle forced labour, or help enough victims.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Additional Reporting by Amber Milne, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. 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 http://news.trust.org)
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