Busting the "myth" of modern slavery: Harrogate's links to international trafficking ring revealed

According to a report presented to Harrogate Borough Council this month, 30 visits were made to potential human trafficking victims over the last year, with half of them in Harrogate.
According to a report presented to Harrogate Borough Council this month, 30 visits were made to potential human trafficking victims over the last year, with half of them in Harrogate.

One of North Yorkshire's senior police has spoken of the importance of busting "myths" surrounding modern day slavery, following a report which revealed 30 incidents of the crime were investigated in the region over the last year.

The local democracy reporting service can also reveal that, following police investigations stemming from local victims, a number of European nationals have been arrested as part of an organised crime gang which allegedly trafficked women for sexual exploitation across the United Kingdom, including in North Yorkshire.

Police.

Police.

The details come after a report presented to Harrogate Borough Council earlier this month stated North Yorkshire Police made 30 visits involving sex workers or modern day slavery between April 2018 and March 2019.

Half of those visits occurred in the Harrogate district.

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The man in charge of tackling the issue, Inspector John Freer of North Yorkshire's safeguarding and vulnerability unit, said the figures demonstrated the importance of rejecting the "myth" that such crimes couldn't occur in a "relatively wealthy" region like North Yorkshire.

The term modern day slavery covers a broad scope of exploitation, and can range from forced labour (working long hours in difficult or dangerous conditions for little or no money with a “threat” or “menace” hanging over the victim) to sexual exploitation, where victims are forced into prostitution against their will.

Insp Freer said while the vast majority of sex workers operated within the law, investigations in the last two years had revealed multiple individuals mainly in York and Harrogate who police believed were victims of modern slavery.

Hundreds of modern slavery victims in North Yorkshire alone
Insp Freer said the findings had led to multiple local, regional or national investigations involving at least twenty North Yorkshire sex workers.

The most notable investigation involved eight potential victims who were being exploited by an organised crime gang based in the north west of the UK and in parts of Europe.

The findings led UK law enforcement to contact their European counterparts to dismantle the gang, resulting in multiple EU nationals being arrested in the past month in connection to the trafficking of woman to the UK.

North Yorkshire Police said earlier this week that other ongoing investigations were underway across the region, with 12 people already arrested across the county on suspicion of committing modern slavery offences.

The revelations come during Safeguarding Week 2019; a week dedicated to raising awareness of the crime, with the aim of making it easier to identify, and eradicate, cases of modern day slavery in the North Yorkshire region.

Insp Freer said police had put a "considerable" amount of time and resources into expanding awareness and delivering training over the previous three years, but conceded it was difficult to know the true scale extent of the issue.

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"It is only once we have delivered training and raised awareness...including with partners and member of the public, that we will begin to understand the nature and scale of modern slavery within North Yorkshire," he said.

"This is very much an ongoing piece of work."

Two groups of partnerships have been set up to tackle the issue at a local level; the Modern Slavery and Illegal and Exploitative working group and the North Yorkshire and City of York Modern Slavery Partnership, with both bringing together various police, community and council resources.

Insp Freer said the public had an important role to play in tackling the crime.

"We need to raise awareness amongst law enforcement, partner agencies and the wider public," he said.

"We need to dispel the 'myth' that still exists in some quarters that slavery or trafficking only happens to poor people living in poor parts of the world and that North Yorkshire, a safe and relatively affluent part of the UK, is somehow immune from this criminality."

He said that there were various indicators which could suggest someone is a victim of modern day slavery, including a distrust of authorities, a fear of divulging their immigration status, and not being in possession of their travel documents or passport.

Having members of the public able to identify potential victims was an important first step in tackling the crime, Insp Freer added.

"It is a wicked and heinous crime which should not be tolerated in any civilised society," he said.

If a member of the public has concerns for the immediate safety of a potential victim then police encourage them to dial 999.

Less urgent concerns can be reported at the Modern Slavery helpline: https://www.modernslaveryhelpline.org/

Lachlan Leeming, Local Democracy Reporter