Human trafficking investigation see 17 people rescued in Leeds

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A multi-agency operation run in Leeds this week as part of a police investigation into human trafficking has seen 17 men, women and children rescued from exploitation.

The three-day operation saw 60 West Yorkshire Police officers, supported by Leeds City Council staff, health agencies, Hope for Justice and the Salvation Army, visit 25 addresses across Leeds to offer help to families identified as being potential victims of trafficking.

The multi-agency teams visited addresses, primarily in south and west of Leeds, and transported three men, four women and 19 children to a special reception centre where they were given access to the services of the relevant agencies.

A total of 17 of those people, who are mainly from Slovakia, have been placed into the National Referral Mechanism, which is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and ensuring they receive comprehensive protection and support.

The move comes as part of a police investigation which began in September this year into an organised criminal gang thought to be behind human trafficking, large-scale benefit fraud and labour exploitation in Leeds and elsewhere.

A total of eight people have been arrested as part of the investigation and bailed, and enquiries are ongoing to trace others believed to be involved.

Senior Investigating Officer Detective Chief Inspector Andy Williams said: “A multi-agency operation on this scale involving such a large number of potential human trafficking victims is unprecedented in West Yorkshire.

“We are therefore very pleased that it has been successful in rescuing a significant number of people from the exploitative situations they had been trafficked into from their home country.

“Many were living in very poor housing conditions with no access to local support services and little if any income to exist on. Others were having their benefits taken from them and being exploited by being forced to work long hours for little or no pay.

“Those that we and our partner agencies have rescued from these situations will now have access to a comprehensive package of support from a range of agencies that will help them to rebuild their lives free from exploitation.

“Our criminal investigation into these matters is ongoing and we expect to make further arrests as part of our efforts to bring those responsible to justice. We hope this will send a message to those who are involved in this type of activity and give other victims confidence that the authorities can provide the help and support they need to escape from their situations.”

A total of 33 people who were approached during the operation preferred not to co-operate and remained where they were. Full safeguarding assessments have been carried out in respect of those people to highlight any issues that require further involvement from the agencies involved and plans have been put in place in conjunction with local neighbourhood policing team officers to manage any issues that result from the operation.

West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Mark Burns-Williamson said: “It is a sad fact that vulnerable people in society are targeted in this way. Tackling this sickening crime is a key commitment within my Police and Crime Plan.

“I am determined to do everything in my power to help protect people in the county and collaborative multi-agency work is absolutely central to this.

“Today for instance, I spoke at and supported a multi agency seminar in Leeds on the subject of exploitation and which I personally directed funding toward the organisation of the event.

“It was evident that we have a clear and developing approach to responding to these offences and I am glad to see that it is reflected in this significant operation in Leeds. I will be doing everything I can to help foster truly integrated working like this going forward.”

Ben Cooley, Chief Executive Officer of Hope for Justice, said: “West Yorkshire Police have done a fantastic job, actively identifying victims of human trafficking. Their multi-agency working has brought freedom to a very significant number of people; it’s been a privilege to assist them.”

Major Anne Read, The Salvation Army’s Anti-Trafficking Response Co-ordinator, said: “The Salvation Army is working with West Yorkshire Police and other agencies to support potential victims of trafficking. It is vital that victims of trafficking receive immediate access to specialised support. Our team has been working to assess the needs of the victims and ensure that they have access to accommodation and support at safe houses if needed.

“The Government has awarded The Salvation Army £3 million a year to provide vital help and support to adult victims of this pitiless exploitation which gives them the very best chance to try and recover through the comprehensive specialised services we can offer working with our partners.”