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Our Head of Community Services, Evan Jones, explains how we can help vulnerable young people who become modern slaves in county lines
"Slavery and trafficking are usually issues associated with people from overseas. However, recent findings from the National Crime Agency highlighted that most of the vulnerable people identified last year as victims in slavery and trafficking cases were UK citizens, from our own communities.
Our experience helping young people caught up in gang related exploitation and violence tells us that this has been going on for many years – although it has not been explicitly identified as trafficking and slavery until fairly recently. Those who are youngest and/or vulnerable through circumstances such as poverty, hidden disabilities and lack of support are the easiest to manipulate and coerce. The emotional state of a young kid in care being bullied at school is not dissimilar to that of a desperate young man from Vietnam who has come to this country in search of a better life only to be trapped in a cannabis farm when here.
Thankfully, the Modern Slavery Act gives the courts the powers to address slavery in its 21st century form – as recent prosecutions have shown. The National
Referral Mechanism (NRM) offers a way of identifying victims of slavery and trafficking and helping victims get the help and support they need.
These are extremely welcome developments. However, our experience working with young people involved in issues such as county lines shows that they are often so wary and vulnerable they do not accept the offers of support that are made to them.
Put yourself in the mindset of a young man who has been a runner on a county line for many months. Alongside the fact he will have been coerced into committing offences that could put him behind bars for many years, he will also almost certainly be in debt to the gang for any drugs that have been robbed off him (pretty much a regular occurrence for any young dealer). The consequences the gang will threaten him and his family with because of this debt will be more terrifying than any prison sentence. As such, he will probably run a mile from any kind offers of help and support from police, local authorities and many other agencies. Although he knows they only want to help, he is also mindful of the fact most will not really truly understand the complex and dangerous situation he is in. Although desperate to get out, he will duck under the radar as usual and suddenly become invisible to the authorities who are trying to help him. He then becomes more entrenched in the lifestyle and harder to help.
This is where a peer-led caseworker approach becomes crucial. People who have been in the same situation as the young people we are trying to help hold the key. They can really understand the trauma, fear and threats facing our clients. They can connect with the young people on their own terms and know that if someone goes missing it means they are petrified - it does not mean they do not want support.
They offer kindly, independent, persistent offers of help until the young person eventually opens up to them. Having been there themselves, the young person trusts them and is comfortable with them liaising with the authorities on their behalf. This type of support needs to be linked up with national models and made available to anyone who is coming on the radar of the NRM and any other route which identifies victims of this type of crime. It is a tricky issue as the victims have been ‘perpetrators’ as well which makes them difficult to engage. But we have a real opportunity to help young people whose lives are being cynically manipulated and tackle the wider issue of serious youth violence which is often interwoven with modern slavery and trafficking.
Evan Jones, Head of Community Services, St Giles Trust