CHILDREN exploited by drug gangs helped push up the number of Britons being flagged as potential victims of slavery, a report reveals.
For the first time, UK citizens topped a list of 116 nationalities believed to be victims of criminal gangs.
Last year 819 Britons were reported to the National Referral Mechanism, compared with 326 in 2016. The National Crime Agency, which compiled the figures, said there was a 66 per cent rise in minors being referred as suspected victims of labour or sexual exploitation.
Many cases were linked to a drug distribution model known as ‘county lines’ that involves city gangs using children and vulnerable people as couriers to move drugs and cash to rural or coastal towns to sell heroin and crack cocaine.
In total 5,145 potential victims of slavery or trafficking were submitted in 2017, up 35 per cent in a year. NCA director Will Kerr warned that the figures ‘almost certainly’ underestimate the true scale of slavery and trafficking.
Albanian and Vietnamese nationals were the next most commonly reported potential victims after Britons.
Suspected labour exploitation was the most frequently cited category, accounting for 2,352 of referrals. There were 1,744 reports of sexual exploitation and 488 of domestic servitude.
Home office minister Victoria Atkins said the UK was ‘leading the world’ in tackling the crime with more victims being identified and protected ‘thanks to a greater awareness and improved understanding of modern slavery’.