The scale of human trafficking and modern slavery is far larger than “anyone had previously thought”, the National Crime Agency has said today.

Tens of thousands of adults and children, according to NCA Director of Vulnerabilities, Will Kerr, are likely to have been trafficked into modern slavery in the UK.

The estimate greatly exceeds the 3,800 victims identified in 2016 by the National Referral Mechanism, the UK’s official framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support.

A surge in NCA operations focusing on labour and sexual exploitation has led to the rethink, with officers uncovering cases ranging from a Romanian organised crime gang making £4.5m from online sexual exploitation to a 12-year-old girl being trafficked into the UK to take children to school.  

ECPAT UK welcomed the news of increased National Crime Agency operations but questioned the UK Government’s commitment to supporting and protecting victims in the UK.

Speaking to The Independent, Ryan Mahan, ECPAT UK, said: “There are two scandals at work here. Every year, more and more adults and children are subjected to unimaginable forms of abuse and exploitation in the UK.

"Despite this, victims continue to be denied access to the vital services they need to recover and rebuild their lives. Authorities must stop prioritising immigration control targets over the safety of victims, which leaves scores of the children we work with vulnerable to missing, re-trafficking and deportation.

"We are hopeful this increase in activity by the NCA will be matched by a Government commitment to reform the child protection system and place the needs of trafficked and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children first.”

To address the issues, ECPAT UK recently launched a public campaign, demanding the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to reform the National Referral Mechanism and guarantee specialist support for children who have been trafficked.