A police boss has vowed to crack down on modern slavery amid fears the economic downturn caused by Covid-19 will lead to more victims being exploited and pop up brothels springing back to life again in Airbnbs and other holiday lets.
North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones fears the poverty fuelled by the inevitable recession will see more vulnerable people being sucked into the evil trade.
According to Mr Jones, a former police inspector, the lockdown has made it more difficult for the vicious pimps and County Lines drugs gangs to operate.
But he stressed that modern day slavery had not gone away during the coronavirus crisis.
After an initial dip in the early days of the pandemic, the number of cases being dealt with by North Wales Police was rising again at a record rate as in the rest of the UK.
Once the lockdown restrictions are eased, Mr Jones said the slavers will be hoping to return to business as usual.
The curbs had reduced the availability of Airbnbs to use as pop-up brothels but they will be available for hire again once the travel constraints are lifted.
Mr Jones has made tackling modern slavery and human trafficking a key priority in his Police and Crime Plan.
In 2017 he provided funding to appoint the UK’s first police support officer dedicated to helping victims of modern slavery.
Last month history was made again when the force became the first in Wales to successfully apply for Slavery and Trafficking Risk Order (STRO) in relation to an investigation involving the exploitation of children.
Mr Jones said: “The coronavirus crisis has created unprecedented challenges in term of policing North Wales, not least in relation to modern day slavery.
“Even though certain activities have been restricted by the lockdown, modern slavery has not gone away – quite the reverse.
“We’re seeing an upward trajectory in the number of cases coming forward which may be because people have more confidence to report it.
“Whatever the cause, I am determined to give the force all the necessary tools and resources to combat this vile business.
“The worlds of organised crime gangs and modern slavery are not unrelated. Where one is discovered often the other is playing a key role.
“Organised criminals often diversify their business models outside of the traditional crimes of drugs and weapons and deal in people. In fact, some of their newer criminal business models rely on trafficking people, for example County Lines – which preys on vulnerable young people forcing them into a life of criminal exploitation.
“My overriding concern is around threat, risk and harm to victims. Modern slavery presents great threat, risk and harm to all our communities.”
Last year 97 potential modern slavery victims were referred to the police in North Wales which was nearly double the figure for 2018.
But it’s accepted that might be the tip of the iceberg and that the real number of victims could be a lot higher.
Detective Sergeant Richard Sidney, from the force’s Modern Day Slavery Unit, was grateful to Commissioner Jones for his “unwavering” support.
He said: “As always, the majority of our referrals are around criminal exploitation and drug related exploitation, which is commonly known as County Lines.
“Unfortunately, people’s drug dependencies don’t go away because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There’s still a market there and still an opportunity to make money and people continue to get exploited in that fashion.
“As a result of Covid, exploiters may try to adapt their tactics and we’re aware of that and we are responding to that.
“The one common theme with all the victims is that they’re vulnerable in one way or another. They may have problematic drug use, they made be vulnerable young people or pensioners with mental health issues. The age ranges from children to pensioners in their 60s or 70s.
“Their vulnerability could be magnified because of the economic downturn with people could become even more susceptible than they already were – or where people were on the cusp of being vulnerable, they might find themselves in real trouble now and then find themselves a different way of making ends meet.
“They may have lost their jobs as a result of being made redundant and are struggling to survive and need to find a way to fund their habit.
“They get sucked in and end up in a debt which has to be repaid and all of a sudden, you’re being forced to do something criminal.
“Prior to lockdown, and like many forces areas across the UK, intelligence was received that pop-up brothels were being set up in North Wales.
“As the travel restrictions are eased, I anticipate the availability of the premises, Airbnbs and other short-term holiday lets, that people use will increase and there will be greater mobility of people around the region.
“As well as the physical damage that can be done to people’s health, it can obviously have a shattering psychological and emotional effect that could last a lifetime.
“My main message is that despite Covid we are still looking to protect people who are victims of exploitation and to support people in getting out of that cycle.
“Support is available from the partners that we work with such as Barnardo’s and BAWSO which provides specialist services for black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in North Wales from its area branch in Wrexham.
“Safeguarding is our main priority, so if the victims are not comfortable speaking to us, we still want them out of that situation and they can speak to our partners.”
Anyone wanting to report suspected cases of modern day slavery can do so by ringing Crimestoppers on 0800 555111 or the Modern Slavery Help Line on 08000 121 700.