Reports of sexual and criminal exploitation increased dramatically during the pandemic, figures from Unseen's Helpline reveal.

The data is part of the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline Annual Assessment, a yearly stock take on UK slavery and human trafficking.

Despite an overall drop in contacts to the Helpline, reports of sexual exploitation were up 25% on the previous year, with nearly a quarter of potential victims being children.

Criminal exploitation, meanwhile, was up by 42%, with a fifth of potential victims being minors.

Criminal exploitation includes drugs-related activity, including County Lines, forced shoplifting and forced begging.

Data from the Helpline helps to shed light on the nature and scale of modern slavery in the UK.

The Annual Assessment, which includes data for every policing area, is one of the most detailed reports produced by our sector. It is used by other charities, the police, local and national governments and others to inform policy and respond directly to reports of slavery and human trafficking.

The 2020 assessment was launched at an online event by Dame Sara Thornton, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

Dame Sara said: “The Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline has provided an important alternative mechanism for those in situations of modern slavery or exploitation to seek help and support.

“Over the past year I have also been particularly impressed with their efforts to produce thematic reports on areas of risk.”

Findings from the Annual Assessment include:

  • Nearly 8,000 contacts in 2020 from victims, professionals working in services such as the NHS, businesses and members of the public
  • A potential 3,481 victims of modern slavery were indicated as a result of this contact
  • 10% of victims were children, up from 7% in 2019.
  • Despite fewer contacts to the Helpline during the pandemic (down nearly 14% to 7,976), the number of modern slavery cases remains fairly consistent: 1,742 in 2020, compared to 1,812 in 2019
  • Potential victims came from 80 nationalities, with Romania being most common, followed by China, Albania and England
  • There was 95% increase in reports related to modern slavery in cannabis farms (pictured below) compared to 2019.

Says Justine Currell, Executive Director of Unseen and co-author of the Assessment: “A year on from the first lockdown, the number of reports relating to sexual and criminal exploitation, and those involving children, is particularly alarming, given that overall contacts to the Helpline decreased during the pandemic.

“Covid19 and the subsequent economic downturn affected the visibility of the threat in such places as car washes and nail bars. And as you would expect, the proportion of calls from the general public declined during the lockdowns. But this report shows that modern slavery and human trafficking is still alive and unfortunately thriving.

“There is still a general lack of awareness of modern slavery, which could involve as many as 100,000 people in the UK alone, so it’s vital we all learn more about the issue and how to spot the signs of exploitation.”


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Justine Currell

As I came to understand more about the issue, including through a visit to an Unseen safehouse, I knew I needed to do more to stop this abuse and exploitation.

For the last five years of my Civil Service career, I was the Modern Slavery Senior Policy Advisor in the Home Office and led on development of the Modern Slavery Act, including the transparency in supply chains provision and business guidance.

I joined Unseen to lead the development of the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, and Unseen’s work with businesses. I am regularly called upon to present at national and international conferences and use my experience of working with Ministers to influence other governments internationally to take action to address modern slavery and, in particular, business supply chain issues.

In my spare time I enjoy keeping fit, music, reading and travelling.

Andrew Wallis

What ultimately compelled me to act was a report on how people from Eastern Europe were being trafficked through Bristol airport to the USA. Kate Garbers, who went on to be an Unseen Director, and I wrote to all the city councillors, MPs and the Police Chief Constable challenging them on the issue. The challenge came back to us: this city needs safe housing for trafficked women. And so Unseen began.

But we never wanted Unseen to be just about safe housing. We wanted to end slavery once and for all, and that remains our driving focus.

I chaired the working group for the Centre for Social Justice’s landmark report “It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to Fight Modern Slavery”. This is now acknowledged as the catalyst behind the UK’s Modern Slavery Act of 2015. It was a great honour to be awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours that year. On the other hand, I’ve also been described as “the loveliest disrupter you could ever hope to meet”.

This job has taken me from building flat-pack furniture for safehouses, to working with businesses to address slavery in supply chains, to delivering training, raising awareness and advising governments around the world.

When not at work, I enjoy travelling, spending time with my dog Harley, cooking, supporting Liverpool and Yorkshire CC, music (I’m a former DJ) and endurance events such as the Three Peaks Challenge and Tribe Freedom Runs – which I vow never to do again. Until the next time.