A new partnership has been established to tackle modern slavery and people trafficking in South Yorkshire as police reveal the full extent of problems affecting the county.
While this crime remains largely unseen, South Yorkshire Police’s serious and organised crime vulnerability unit is seeking to identifying those responsible and bringing them to justice.
It is steadily building a clearer picture of how the issue is having an impact in the county, with intelligence growing around the exploitation of Chinese women in ‘‘pop-up’’ brothels appearing in Sheffield communities.
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Labour exploitation, where victims are forced to work against their will, is said to be a problem in Doncaster, while Albanian men are being made to act as gardeners for cannabis factories in Rotherham and Barnsley.
Now specialist officers will work to disrupt this illegal activity in tandem with the county’s four district councils and charities that safeguard survivors and victims, as the South Yorkshire Modern Slavery Partnership.
Formed with the intervention of Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings, it is intended to create a more effective package of measures to control problems in the region.
Detective Sergeant Nikki Leach told a launch meeting for the partnership that ‘‘county lines’’ drug dealing networks must be another focal point.
“County lines activity has started to increase and we have seen this quite considerably,” she said.
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Numbers of known organised crime gangs believed to be actively exploiting children still remain in single figures in South Yorkshire and police work to disrupt the networks is intended to prevent the problem from escalating.
The meeting heard much of the county’s problems with slavery and trafficking surround sexual exploitation, and Romanian women are a big target for gangs.
“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, and frequent male traffic visiting at all hours.
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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.
The meeting heard there is a growing realisation that those who are found in pop-up brothels or cannabis factories may be victims of a crime gang themselves, rather than an offender as police might have previously assumed.
Det Sgt Leach 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.”
The problem of modern slavery will not be “cured by police and law enforcement on its own”, South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner has said.
Dr Alan Billings, who has worked with other organisations to make the South Yorkshire Modern Slavery Partnership a reality, said: “There is a recognition police cannot do it on their 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.”