Number of potential modern slavery victims in England and Wales hits record high

Number of potential modern slavery victims in England and Wales hits record high

Number of potential modern slavery victims in England and Wales hits record high

Image: Police say modern slavery victims work across society from car washes to agriculture and nail bars. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Latest figures show Albanian nationals account for almost a third of total, and British nationals a quarter

The number of potential victims of modern slavery in England and Wales is at the highest levels since records began, according to official statistics.

A total of 4,746 people were referred to the Home Office from January to March as potential victims of exploitation, figures show – a rise of more than a quarter compared with the same period last year.

The figures have been released as the government prepares to fight attempts in the House of Lords to alter the illegal migration bill, which critics say will make it harder to rescue modern slavery victims. Senior MPs, including Theresa May, claimed last month that the bill would scrap protection and support for those in forced labour.

Although it is impossible to know exact numbers of victims, the police have said modern slavery victims, including children, work across many sectors, from construction and agriculture to the sex industry, and in places such as nail bars, car washes and cannabis farms.

The number of people referred into the national referral mechanism (NRM) – a system that identifies potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking so their cases can be considered – in the first three months of this year was the highest since the scheme started in 2009, the Home Office said.

This is an increase of 27% from 3,773 in the first quarter of 2022, and a rise of 7% on the period October to December.

Albanian nationals accounted for almost one-third (31%) of all potential victims, making up 1,452 of the total number. British nationals were the second-most commonly referred at 1,163, making up 25% of the total, while the third-most common nationality was Sudanese at 226 (5%).

The Home Office said referrals for Albanian nationals had reached the highest number and proportion since the NRM began, and were higher than UK nationals for the fifth consecutive quarter.

Referrals for British nationals reached their highest quarterly number and have been growing since the July-September 2021 period.

The illegal migration bill is expected to face close scrutiny in the Lords next week. Under the bill’s measures, potential victims may be removed from the UK before they are conclusively identified as victims of modern slavery, affecting their safety from traffickers and their recovery from exploitation.

Critics claimed the bill would penalise people affected by modern slavery with irregular immigration status, which would make it more difficult for people who are trafficked and escape to come forward to authorities.

In October, Suella Braverman, the home secretary, attributed a rise in modern slavery claims to people falsely trying to register as trafficking victims. She said: “The hard truth is that our modern slavery laws are being abused by people gaming the system. We’ve seen a 450% increase in modern slavery claims since 2014.”