MORE than 70 slavery victims of modern day slavery were tracked down in North Yorkshire last year, new figures reveal.

North Yorkshire Police urged residents to report suspicious behaviour in their area, describing it as a "hidden crime" taking place around us.

Amongst victims identified by police in 2020, 51 cases involved children - that equates to around 71 per cent of all referrals.

It comes amid fears from anti-slavery charity Unseen which believes the pandemic's effect on the economy leaves more vulnerable people at risk of exploitation.

Unseen said the closure of recognised slavery hotspots – such as car washes and nail bars – during lockdown periods meant potential victims were less visible during the pandemic, when referrals linked to adults fell nationally.

Here in North Yorkshire, Home Office data shows a slight drop in modern slavery cases referred to police, down from 79 to 72 between 2019 and 2020.

Unseen's Justine Currel said: “Covid-19 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 as fewer people were out and about.

“Now we’re emerging from lockdown, we’re seeing contacts significantly increasing.

“It’s too early to say how many of these contacts will result in victims of modern slavery being identified."

Across the UK, 10,613 potential victims were referred to police last year – broadly in line with the record 10,616 identified in 2019.

Between January and March this year, almost 3,000 further potential victims were flagged, a slight increase on the same period in 2020.

Of those, six were identified to police in North Yorkshire.

A spokesperson for North Yorkshire Police said: “Modern slavery blights communities and causes significant long-term harm to its victims. However, it can be a hidden crime, sometimes taking place in remote, rural locations away from public view. Our officers work hard to deliver justice for those victims who have been brave enough to come forward.

“If you suspect modern slavery is taking place in York or North Yorkshire, or if you think you are a victim yourself, please contact us."

You can dial 101, press 1 and speak to the Force Control Room. If anyone is in immediate danger, dial 999. Victims in need of help but not ready to speak to the police can call 08000 121 700 for the Modern Slavery Helpline.

Those identified as possible victims by police forces, councils or other recognised authorities are referred to the Home Office for support via the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

Gazette & Herald:

Until 2020, NRM referrals had increased every year since recording began in 2014.

The Home Office said restrictions amid the pandemic are likely to have caused a plateau in referral numbers.

Modern slavery can involve domestic servitude, forced labour, sexual or criminal exploitation. A spokesperson for the Home Office said the Government had intensified enforcement action to crack down on those exploiting young people and highlighted 1,000 arrests linked to county lines activity in May.

But a spokeswoman for the Human Trafficking Foundation called for a national strategy to tackle the exploitation of youngsters. She said: "The rise in British cases involving children highlights how increasingly acute child criminal exploitation is now in this country and that not enough sadly is being done to tackle it."

The spokesperson added: “Through the Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract, delivered through The Salvation Army, we provide adult victims in England and Wales with specialist support to help them to rebuild their lives, including safehouse accommodation, financial support and assistance in accessing health care and legal support.”