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Modern slavery could be far bigger problem than realised, expert claims

23 January 2018

Up to five times as many people could be caught in modern slavery in the UK today as was previously thought, according to one expert who has pioneered a new technique for appraising the scale of the problem.

Dr Nadia Wager, reader in forensic psychology at the University of Huddersfield, has also discovered that people trafficked from overseas probably account for only half of those being exploited as modern slaves in Britain. She also calls on agencies dealing with the issue to dismantle barriers that can prevent victims finding the help they need.

Work carried out in the Thames Valley police area alerted Dr Wager to the scale of the problem, when she was engaged to evaluate an independent trauma advisory project that had been piloted in order to help victims of modern slavery.

Whereas estimates based on figures from the criminal justice system suggested that the area had 533 victims over the previous year (2016), Dr Wager by drawing on new sources of data from support services arrived at a figure of 2,500.

Among her other key findings was that the customary tendency to equate modern slavery with international people trafficking might be misleading.

"What we found in Thames Valley was that about 50% of the victims were not internationally trafficked, but were actually resident in the UK", said Dr Wager, whose research also identified a range of vulnerable groups, such as people who had been in local care during their childhood and developed substance abuse or mental health problems. They could be prey to the practice that has been termed "cuckooing".

"Children who have been in care are often given social housing when they leave the care system. But they happen to be vulnerable and in need of affection so people befriend them and then invade their home. It is usually dealers who want to stash drugs or make the person go drug running for them. They completely control that person’s life."

Although there are gangs responsible for forms of modern slavery, Dr Wager argues that too much emphasis can be placed on this.

"We found that the vast majority of the perpetrators are couples, families and individuals and not big organised groups", she explained.

Recommendations emerging from her project include the importance of agencies – in fields such as housing and drug rehabilitation – taking down barriers, working together, and recognising their shared responsibilities towards modern slavery victims.

She also stresses the importance of building trust. Successful prosecutions were often the result of a social worker or a police officer gradually developing a relationship with a victim.

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