Referrals of suspected victims of modern slavery exploited by county lines gangs more than doubled during the coronavirus lockdown, official figures show.
The UK’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) received 409 referrals of potential victims between April and June – up from 199 the previous quarter.
Of these, 377 (92 per cent) involved children, with boys accounting for 346 (85 per cent) of the total, according to Home Office figures.
It is the highest number of referrals flagged as county lines cases on record and the first time more referrals were received for suspected child victims than adults overall.
Almost a fifth (19 per cent) of all referrals involved individuals suspected to have been exploited by county lines drugs gangs.
Over half (58 per cent) of referrals involved children, while adults made up 38 per cent of the referrals and the age was unknown in four per cent of cases.
Labour exploitation was most commonly reported for adults, while criminal exploitation was most common for suspected child victims.
Iryna Pona, policy manager at the Children’s Society, said: “We saw through our frontline services how criminals continued to cynically groom and exploit vulnerable children to traffic drugs during lockdown.
“They adapted their methods where necessary and took advantage of a situation in which many children were out of view of teachers, social workers and youth workers – meaning that even these shocking figures may be just the tip of the iceberg.”
It comes as overall referrals of suspected victims of modern slavery fell almost a quarter as the Covid-19 lockdown was observed.
The NRM received 2,209 referrals of potential victims between April and June – a 23 per cent fall from the first quarter of 2020.
The number of referrals in the first three months of the year was itself a drop from the previous quarter, and the first fall since 2016.
Both decreases are “understood to be influenced by the effects of restrictions implemented in the UK as part of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic”, the Home Office said.
These include travel restrictions by other countries on people coming to the UK, people staying at home or self-isolating, and businesses shutting after the lockdown on 23rd March.
Last year, the number of suspected modern slavery victims in the UK hit a record high, with more than 10,000 potential victims of trafficking, slavery and forced labour identified.
The number of referrals received during the second quarter of 2020 was five per cent lower than the same period in 2019.
Director of After Exploitation, Maya Esslemont, said the rise in referrals of suspected child victims is “deeply concerning”.
The overall fall in referrals during lockdown does not mean fewer people in the UK are vulnerable to slavery, she cautioned.
“For example, when certain businesses stop being operational it can mean that traffickers ‘dump’ victims they no longer have use for.
“That may seem like a positive alternative for those held under exploitation but, the reality is, many will be doubly vulnerable and destitute once leaving settings of exploitation.”
Councillor Nesil Caliskan, chairman of the Local Government Association’s safer and stronger communities board, added: “The easing of coronavirus restrictions could lead to more people being exploited by unscrupulous businesses seeking to make up for lost income by breaching minimum wage laws.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The Government is determined to crack down on criminal gangs who are exploiting children and having a devastating impact on our communities.
“As part of our £25 million programme to tackle county lines we are investing in specialist support for victims of this abhorrent form of exploitation.
“We have already implemented a number of significant reforms to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and are embarking on an ambitious transformation of the NRM to build on this work – giving vulnerable victims the tailored support they need to move on with their lives.”
Picture: A stock image of a person with their hands tied in rope. (chameleonseye).