A senior county councillor has called for residents’ help after an increase in reports of modern slavery and human trafficking in Sussex last year.
Speaking this week, East Sussex County Council’s lead member for communities and safety Bill Bentley called on residents to get in touch with authorities if they suspect someone may be a victim of modern slavery or human trafficking.
Cllr Bentley made his comments at a meeting of the people scrutiny committee on Thursday (June 20), as members discussed the work of the East Sussex Safer Communities Partnership.
He said: “Modern slavery comes in all varieties. It is wrong and it has got to stop.
“There is a pan-Sussex process and all local authorities, along with Sussex Police, are engaged with it to make sure we are doing everything we possibly can.
“What is really, really important is that we get intelligence. So often these issues are in plain sight. They are happening right in front of us, but nobody tells us.
“We do rely on our communities and our community leaders to make sure we get that information on to the desks of the Safer East Sussex team and to the police.
“It is a plague and it has got to stop.”
According to council papers, police and local authorities identified 48 potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking across Sussex in 2018 – a 31 per cent increase on the previous year.
The majority of these potential victims (33 out of 48) were children, council papers say.
Officers say the rise in reports reflects a national trend, with the number of modern slavery and human trafficking referrals rising by 36 per cent nationwide.
Part of the increase has been attributed to work to detect and tackle the County Lines drugs trade – where criminal gangs, typically from large cities, set up shop outside of their home territory.
These gangs often target children, who they use as low level dealers and mules in their drugs networks.
While this form of exploitation is not recorded separately from other forms labour exploitation (which make up the majority of modern slavery referrals in Sussex), officers say the spread of County Lines is the main cause of more children being reported as potential victims of modern slavery.
Earlier in the meeting, council officers spoke of plans to run a public information campaign to highlight the realities of the drug trade to casual users.
Caz Evans, an officer working in the council’s substance misuse service, said: “Most of this cohort are still working, holding down a job and living what we would consider fairly normal lives.
“They are not people whose drug use has become so problematic that they can’t carry on their day-to-day business.
“Most of the drugs used by this cohort are bought from people they know, people they consider to be nice decent people.
“But at some point those drugs will have come along the supply chain, where people have possibly died [and] children will have been involved in running the drugs to where they need to be.
“It contributes to organised crime, it contributes to the rise in knife crime – not necessarily in East Sussex but somewhere along the line.
“This cohort of people I think would be pretty horrified if they understood the repercussions and the reality of where their drugs came from.”
For information about how to spot the signs of modern slavery see: https://www.modernslaveryhelpline.org/about/spot-the-signs
You can also call the modern slavery helpline on 0800 0121 700.