BY TOBY PORTER
South London is the hub for modern slavery in Britain, with up to 70 per cent of the victims being women forced into prostitution.
Lewisham, Southwark and Croydon are three of the four boroughs with the worst enslavement problem in the city, with many victims being made to work in the sex trade or forced labour. Others are working virtually as serfs for families who pay them a pittance for what amounts to domestic servitude.
But police fear many are being missed – and the ones who they do get tip-offs about end up disappearing back into their communities.
The number of victims has risen by up to 30 per cent in South London in the past year, says Hestia, the Borough-based charity which supports the majority of victims of modern slavery.
Southwark, with 54 cases of slavery, had 39 girls and one boy forced into prostitution and seven victims of domestic servitude. Another seven people were trapped in forced labour. Lewisham had 41 cases, including 24 girls and one boy, trapped in brothels.
The other two boroughs in the worst four were Croydon, with 61 reports, and Newham in east London, with 46.
The numbers in Lambeth were far smaller, with a total of 19 reported crimes, five fewer than next-door Greenwich. Merton had seven and Wandsworth four. Hestia’s report says two-thirds of the modern slavery victims it worked with in London in 2016 had been forced into prostitution – a far higher proportion than the rest of the country.
The numbers continue to grow and Hestia has already helped more people in 2017 than it did in 2016. Many of the investigations involve people trying to get to Lunar House, in Croydon, to claim asylum and being trapped on their journey.
Detective Chief Inspector Phil Brewer, of the Met’s modern slavery unit, said: “People are targeted because they are vulnerable. “If you are here illegally, the last thing you want is to involve the
authorities. But these days, people are more confident about coming forward – that they will not be treated as a suspect.
“We see cases of victims taken from lower classes, particularly from West African countries, and employed as domestic workers in very poor conditions.
“There’s a tendency for Vietnamese victims to go missing and end up back in the hands of their community, because they have a default fear of authority. That may be reflected in Lewisham. Some women have been through horrendous things, but seem not to think it is too bad compared to their lives before.”
Patrick Ryan, Hestia chief executive officer, said: “Modern slavery is a cold, calculated and brutal business model in which people are deprived of liberty and then repeatedly raped, beaten and abused. It turns a profit on the back of other people’s misery.
“It destroys the lives of its victims and is a shame to all of us in a modern society.
“The only way to combat this issue is with support by the public.
“We need Londoners to help victims rebuild their lives. We need specialists such as teachers and doctors.
“But we also need people who can spare a few hours to befriend an individual and support them to feel part of a community again.”
Police estimate the number of victims identified in London could end up rising to as many as 1,600 by the end of this year. The independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, has said the number of people living in slavery in the UK is likely to be considerably higher than the current estimate of 13,000, adding the “true number is in the tens of thousands”.
The Home Office announced last month that it intends to increase the extent of “move on” support for victims of modern slavery from 14 days to 45 days. This includes homes, counselling, expert advice and advocacy.