Yorkshire’s largest police force has launched the country’s first unit dedicated to tackling human trafficking outside London after the number of victims it identified doubled in a year.
West Yorkshire Police is investing £1.5million over the next two years in its Human Trafficking Unit (HTU), amid growing concern about the rise of slavery gangs.
Eleven specially-trained detectives from the serious and organised crime unit have been drafted in to focus on trafficking, working in a similar way to specialist drugs and gun teams. A further 3,500 police staff, as well as staff from other agencies will receive training on how to identify victims.
It comes after the number of victims dealt with by the force doubled from 42 in 2013 to 84 last year. In August the Yorkshire Post revealed that West Yorkshire Police was dealing with more cases than any UK force other than the Metropolitan Police.
Detective Chief Inspector Warren Stephenson, who will oversee the unit, said: “Human trafficking is a vile crime, and the resources we are dedicating to this new unit make clear how determined we are to tackle it and bring those responsible to justice.”
Many victims, and in some cases entire families, are lured to Yorkshire, often from Eastern Europe, by the promise of a better life.
Once in the county they are deprived of passports and other documents and forced to work for a pittance in menial jobs, coerced into the sex trade or made to commit petty crimes. In some cases they are merely used as pawns to exploit the benefits system.
A single trafficked victim can be worth tens of thousands of pounds a year to gangsters.
West Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson said there were examples of up to 20 people being enslaved in a single property.
He said: “People are literally being exploited ruthlessly by criminals who see human beings as a way to make a living.
“As human beings in the 21st century why should we be prepared to tolerate what is in effect slavery?”
In November 2013 about 20 suspected victims were rescued in raids on addresses across Leeds.
Last year, Hungarians Janos Orsos and Ferenc Illes were jailed for their part in a trafficking ring based in Bradford, Dewsbury and Wakefield.
An inquest in October heard one of their victims, Viktor Fejes, hanged himself after being forced to work for a pittance in bed warehouses in the Batley area.
A new law to tackle trafficking is expected to be passed this year. The Modern Slavery Bill, introduced in the Queen’s Speech, includes changes such as making the reporting of human trafficking a legal duty, introducing an anti-slavery commissioner and harsher sentences.
Officials admit the scale of the problem is difficult to quantify as much of it remains hidden, but Mr Stevenson said West Yorkshire had about half a dozen major operations ongoing.
He added: “The scale of the problem will increase. The unit will have more work to do and we will have a larger amount of victims to deal with – into the hundreds I would think.”
Charity Hope for Justice is supporting the new unit and providing training to police. Director of rogrammes Allan Doherty said: “The inhumanity of keeping someone a slave requires a strong and strategic response, West Yorkshire Police are setting an example for the nation’s forces.”