Children and adults are being kept as slaves and even exploited sexually in Gloucestershire, new figures reveal.
Data released by the National Crime Agency shows cases involving at least five people - one child and four adults - were referred to them between just April and June this year.
That included one woman from India being kept in domestic servitude, two men from the Czech Republic and Romania being exploited for labour and a child from the UK being exploited sexually.
The referrals to the agency came from Gloucester City Council, which referred one case, and Gloucestershire Constabulary, which referred four.
The city council said its case related to a man being kept in a restaurant in Gloucester in 'very poor' conditions.
Gloucestershire Constabulary has not shared details of the four cases it referred.
Children's safeguarding charity the NSPCC said homes and businesses across the UK are hiding child slaves who have been forced into sexual exploitation, punishing physical labour, or even tending cannabis factories.
Its child trafficking team has received nearly 2,000 reports of trafficked child cases since it opened 10 years ago, with even babies being reported to them as potential victims. However, it said, the secretive nature of modern day slavery and lack of awareness means this number is likely to be just a fraction of the true problem.
The head of charity’s Child Trafficking Advice Centre (CTAC), Mandy John-Baptiste, said that although the public and professionals are aware of children fleeing war-torn or poverty-stricken countries, few realise this can result in child trafficking or that they may be benefiting from the trade.
The NSPCC is now calling for increased awareness-raising and training among professionals, such as social workers, refugee volunteers, solicitors, law authorities, or border forces, along with more work with agencies overseas in working together to prevent and protect children from this form of abuse.
The centre also wants one, global, best practice approach to safeguarding child trafficking victims, and the creation of a single European or international database that would help authorities work together to protect the child.
Sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, and domestic servitude were among the main concerns from professionals referring children to CTAC. Children being used for criminal exploitation such as cultivating cannabis or committing street crimes were among the other reasons for referrals.
Head of CTAC, Mandy John-Baptiste said: “People don’t like to think about the real age of the young person they’re paying for sex with, why a child might be ‘helping out’ in their nail bar, or why their cleaner or child care is so cheap. It’s an ugly truth to admit.
“This is a child protection issue and it’s not going away. Professionals must open their eyes and be able to spot the warning signs, and work with other agencies so that we can jointly take action to prevent and protect children from this form of abuse.”
Peter Wanless, NSPCC CEO, said: “Many believe slavery couldn’t possibly go on today, yet the problem is all too real. We must expose the dark underbelly of slavery that, sometimes, goes on right under our noses, and bring those responsible to justice.
“These are children who have been denied their basic human rights and are bound by their enslavers, who will force them into the most degrading, hopeless life imaginable. I urge anyone who thinks a child might be in danger to contact our CTAC team.”
Authorities in Gloucestershire said they are doing everything they can to tackle modern slavery.
Jon McGinty, managing director at Gloucester City Council, said: “Partners in the Gloucestershire Anti-Slavery Partnership have joined forces to tackle modern slavery.
“We train every council officer to look for the signs of modern day slavery, and how to deal with concerns or suspicions.
“If you see or hear anything that worries you, please report it to the police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.”
Pete Bungard, chief executive of Gloucestershire County Council and chair of the Gloucestershire Anti-Slavery Partnership, said: “Slavery is not an issue confined to history – it is still happening in the 21st century. Modern slavery can take many forms - from forced labour to sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
“It often goes unseen and all organisations across Gloucestershire are working together to make sure we recognise it and take action."
Detective Chief Inspector Gavin Webb, Gloucestershire Constabulary's lead for modern slavery and human trafficking, added: “Working with partners on the Anti-Slavery Partnership, Gloucestershire Constabulary have focussed a great deal of effort in better understanding the nature and scale of this issue in the county.
"We have improved our knowledge and ability to identify and respond to this form of criminality and look to safeguard potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery as a priority. However, it should not be looked at as a crime in isolation as there may be links with child sexual exploitation, dangerous drug networks targeting the vulnerable and to organised immigration crime. We will continue to work with partners to support victims and target offenders.”
"The signs of exploitation can be found in detail at modernslavery.co.uk and more information is available at unseenuk.org but in general people should be on the lookout for workers who may show the signs of physical or psychological abuse, look malnourished, unkempt or withdrawn.”