Leading experts in modern slavery come together for digital summit on criminal exploitation

Read the 'Criminal Exploitation of Adult Victims' report

Leading experts in the modern slavery sector have come together for a digital summit, marking the release of Hestia’s new Underground Lives report, ‘Criminal Exploitation of Adult Victims’.

The digital summit explored the key findings of the new report through three panels, ‘Growing Up in County Lines: When Child Victims Become Adults’, ‘Criminal Strategies: Organised Crimes and Use of Section 45’, and ‘The Impact of COVID-19: The Changing Landscape of Criminal Exploitation’.

Each featuring presentations from individuals with a wealth of expertise in modern slavery and criminal exploitation.

Hestia’s CEO, Patrick Ryan, was joined by the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton and Abigail Ampofo, Hestia’s Director of Operations, for an initial deep dive into the report’s key findings before the panels began.

The report indicated that victims of criminal exploitation are often seen as criminals first and foremost, not victims, and their vulnerabilities ignored.

Dame Sara Thornton offered her support for the report’s recommendations, particularly around training for all police forces in recognising vulnerabilities and potential signs of exploitation.

"We are better at imprisoning victims than traffickers"

Moving into the first panel discussion, looking at the complexities of when children become adults while trapped in county lines exploitation, Becky Fedia of The Children’s Society condemned the lack of support on offer when a child hits 18.

"...even when young people get support, it tends to fall away as adults"

Karen Bradley MP, the Co-Chair of the APPG on Human Trafficking & Modern Slavery, argued that a “lack of understanding of criminal exploitation especially amongst key professionals” could be hindering prosecution rates, suggesting that many victims are currently scared to report criminal exploitation for fear of not being believed.

The second panel, looking at criminal strategies to entrap victims into a cycle of exploitation and the use of Section 45, featured Baroness Butler-Sloss, the Police Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire Mark Burns-Williamson and Anti-Slavery International’s Kate Roberts.

Roberts emphasised that the core of recruitment for criminal exploitation stems from identifying vulnerabilities; criminals are adept at identifying and hence targeting individuals with specific vulnerabilities.

An Evening Standard report published on the report hones in a specific tactic used by criminals used to target vulnerable girls. Often, criminal gang members will gain trust of victims under the guise of being in a romantic relationship with them, before coercing and forcing them into a perilous cycle of exploitation. Tuhina, an Advocate in Hestia’s Modern Slavery Response team, told a candid story of how this exact entrapment happened to one of the women she supports.

The final panel, honing in on the timeliness of the report, reflected on how COVID-19 could change strategies for criminal gangs in recruiting victims, and how heightened vulnerabilities could force more adults into the dangerous cycle of exploitation.

Miriam Minty, Head of Modern Slavery at the Home Office, outlined that criminal gangs did not take the lockdown period off; they spent it adapting, determined to continue the brutal enslavement of victims. Kathy Betteridge, of The Salvation Army, gave insight into a trend she is already seeing as we enter a post-lockdown landscape – that of debt bondage.

In the face of unprecedented economic uncertainty, criminals will become only more determined to take advantage of the vulnerable, and action must be taken now.

Closing with a Q&A, panellists agreed that a multi-agency approach and improved collaboration will be needed as we continue to support victims of criminal exploitation in an as yet unknown landscape.

Our Recommendations

Improve data and insight about criminal exploitation in the UK

  • For the Home Office to:| Review data collection on criminal exploitation in the UK, including addressing issues with under-reporting or misclassification | Share data insight on criminal exploitation in the UK to better understand the models of exploitation and inform prevention efforts;

Improve training and awareness among key professionals

  • For the Home Office to: | Develop guidance on criminal exploitation for first responders

  • For the College of Policing to: | Develop and roll-out training for all police forces on recognising vulnerabilities to criminal exploitation and on Section 45 Defence

  • For the Solicitors Regulation Authority to: | Issue guidance on the use of the Section 45 Defence of the Modern Slavery Act;

Ensure services are designed to support victims of criminal exploitation

  •  For the Home Office to: | Ensure the new ‘safe spaces’ provision, due to be provided as an entry point for individuals being supported through the National Referral Mechanism, directly meets the needs of victims of criminal exploitation

  • For local authorities to: | Implement a contextual safeguarding approach to preventing criminal exploitation.

Read the 'Criminal Exploitation of Adult Victims' report