MORE than 70 potential slavery victims were referred to police in Dorset last year - and nearly two-thirds of them were children.

Home Office data reveals a rise in modern slavery cases referred to Dorset Police, with 77 recorded in 2020, 18 more than the 59 recorded in 2019.

They included 50 children – equating to around 65 per cent of all referrals.

Anti-slavery charity Unseen has warned of a potential increase in victims following the coronavirus pandemic, adding that the UK's economic downturn has created more vulnerable people who could be at risk of exploitation.

Across the UK, 10,613 potential victims were referred to police last year – broadly in line with the record 10,616 identified in 2019.

Between January and March this year, almost 3,000 further potential victims were flagged, a slight increase on the same period in 2020.

Of those, 21 were identified to police in Dorset.

Modern slavery can involve domestic servitude, forced labour, sexual or criminal exploitation.

Unseen said the closure of recognised slavery hotspots – such as car washes and nail bars – during lockdown periods in the UK meant potential victims were less visible during the pandemic, when referrals linked to adults fell nationally.

Referrals linked to “county lines” activity, which sees gangs using vulnerable people to transport drugs from cities to small towns, rose by almost a third nationally in 2020, with male children identified as potential victims in four out of five of those cases.

Those identified as possible victims by police forces, councils or other recognised authorities are referred to the Home Office for support via the National Referral Mechanism.

Unseen's Justine Currel said: “Covid-19 and the subsequent economic downturn affected the visibility of the threat in such places as car washes and nail bars.

“And as you would expect, the proportion of calls from the general public declined during the lockdowns as fewer people were out and about.

“Now we’re emerging from lockdown, we’re seeing contacts significantly increasing.

“It’s too early to say how many of these contacts will result in victims of modern slavery being identified."

Detective Inspector Mark Holmes, of the adult safeguarding team and Dorset Police’s tactical lead for modern slavery and human trafficking, said: “Dorset Police is committed to working with partners to tackle modern slavery and we are doing all we can to encourage reporting and investigate offences reported to us.

“The increase in Dorset is reflective of the national trend, which has seen a rise of around 50 per cent in modern slavery cases.

“A number of the incidents reported to us relate to county lines drug networks that involve the criminal exploitation of children and young people.

“We have a dedicated County Lines Management Team that has been set up to focus on safeguarding the most vulnerable within our community with proactive visits and engagement, as well as to disrupt the activities of perpetrators.

“We also recognise that labour and sexual exploitation present emerging threats within Dorset and we are taking action to identify those groups involved in this criminal activity and safeguard victims.

“As part of a national operation, we are working on improving the multi-agency response to complex issues surrounding migrant children. All officers have also undertaken dedicated vulnerability training with an emphasis on modern slavery and human trafficking, so that those on the frontline are better placed to spot the signs that someone is being exploited and respond accordingly.

“Members of the public can assist in our efforts by learning about the signs and indicators of modern slavery and reporting any concerns to us.”