Modern slavery crackdown in South Yorkshire as public bodies join forces in new partnership

Public services across South Yorkshire are to work together in a new partnership against modern slavery and people trafficking as police have revealed the full extent of problems affecting the county, with ‘pop-up’ brothels exploiting Chinese women now Sheffield’s major issue.

Wednesday, 22nd May 2019, 4:42 pm
Updated Friday, 24th May 2019, 11:11 am
Dr Alan Billings

South Yorkshire Police have become increasingly focused on dealing with both areas of crime, which happen in many communities but remain largely unseen, after setting up a serious and organised crime vulnerability unit.

That has a team of specialist officers working to identify people trafficking gangs and modern slavery crimes and to bring those involved to justice.

In future, they will be work in tandem with the county’s four district councils and charities which work to help safeguard survivors and victims of the crimes under the newly created South Yorkshire Modern Slavery Partnership.

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That has been formed with the intervention of Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings, with the intention of creating a more effective package of measures to control problems in the region.

Police intelligence is now growing around both problems and issues with ‘pop up’ brothels, which appear unexpectedly in communities, where Chinese women are exploited is regarded as the major issue in Sheffield.

Doncaster is regarded as having problems with labour exploitation, where victims are effectively in slavery and forced to work against their will.

Cannabis ‘factories’ using Albanian men under duress to act as gardeners are viewed as the most prolific issue in Rotherham and Barnsley, with Rotherham having the biggest incidence.

Doncaster Robin Hood Airport is also known by the authorities as a major route into the region for the gangs who bring in those they will traffick and exploit in the area.

Det Sgt Nikki Leach told a launch meeting for the partnership: “County lines activity has started to increase and we have seen this quite considerably,” she said.

Numbers of known organised crime gangs believed to be actively exploiting children still remain in single figures in the county and police work to unpick county lines, where young and vulnerable people are used to sell drugs in communities miles from the supplying gangs, is intended to prevent the problem from escalating.

Much of the county’s problems with slavery and trafficking surround sexual exploitation and Romanian women are also known to be a big target for gangs operating in the county.

“It causes problems for the victim and the community,” said Det Sgt Leach.

“Pop-ups are operating in residential properties. We have seen a real increase in these because it can go unnoticed for a long time. It is reported only when neighbours see activity.”

Flats are often used as a base, with tell tale signs including women entering the address but not re-emerging, with frequent male traffic visiting at all hours of the day and night.

Without help from the community, they are hard to trace because the way criminals operate means there is no paper-trail of evidence and no communications links to the addresses used.

Police attitudes have also changed in recent years, with new training regimes for front line officers and the specialist teams involved in operations such as raids on cannabis factories.

There is a growing realisation that those found in such premises may be victims of a crime gang themselves, rather than an offender as police might have previously assumed.

“By far the most common type (of crime) is sexual exploitation and most labour exploitation is in car washes,” she said.

“There is a rise in the numbers being forced to cultivate cannabis. The person involved in cultivating cannabis is probably not going to be Mr Big and is probably exploited.

“We have been trying to change the mindset of officers to look at the bigger picture and to treat that person as a victim,” she said.

*Victims and survivors of modern slavery and people trafficking crimes can present a huge range of difficulties for the organisations tasked with helping them emerge from their ordeals.

Because many have been brought into the country from overseas, a significant number speak little or no English and the circumstances in which they have been held captive and exploited mean many also have mental health issues, including post traumatic stress disorder.

Those problems can be compounded by a lack of knowledge of people’s rights in this country and a lack of experience in dealing day-to-day tasks such as handling personal finances.

A structure is in place for the Government to determine the rights of those found in this country without citizenship, but that is regarded as a system with flaws because it provides only limited assistance for those who receive a positive outcome.

The charities Ashiana and Snowdrop Project are both members of the new South Yorkshire Modern Slavery Partnership and are involved in providing support for those affected by modern slavery.

Ashiana was set up in Sheffield 35 years ago as a refuge for women from South Asian communities. It has now evolved to provide wider services for black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee communities, to help them escape violence and abuse.

The Snowdrop project is the first charity in the UK to provide long term support for human trafficking survivors, beyond the 45 days of care provided under Government rules.

Chief Executive Officer of Ashiana, Nicola Lambe, said the new partnership “Offers a true strategic response to modern slavery”.

*Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings has worked with other organisations to make the South Yorkshire Modern Slavery Partnership a reality and said: “There is a recognition police cannot do it on their own.”

“It will not be cured by police and law enforcement on its own. I think this is a very welcome thing, it is fantastic.

“We will see a partnership working together, raising awareness, understanding the problem better and making a difference.

“Hopefully, we will do things we can share with colleagues elsewhere in the country, because I know they are interested in what we are doing.

“In the past, slavery was in shackles. Now it is invisible, in plain sight, but invisible,” he said.

Dr Billings has accompanied police on a recent raid on a cannabis factory in a domestic property in Rotherham, where plants were found to be growing on all floors.

The ‘gardener’ found at the scene was arrested.

“Was he a criminal or a victim,” asked Dr Billings.

“These are the sort of difficult questions we will be faced with in the years to come. We are just beginning to understand the full extent of the problem here,” he said.