CRIMINALLY exploited children are among more than 80 suspected victims of modern slavery identified in Cumbria in just over five years, we can reveal.

Stark new statistics suggest Cumbria is on track to record its highest ever number of slavery victims – and the cost of living crisis means more could be in danger of falling prey to exploiters.

During the first three months of the year, eight ‘modern slaves’ identified in the Cumbria Constabulary force area were referred to the Home Office for support.

That is nearly half the number recorded during the entirety of 2021, when 17 victims were found.

The 25 identified since the beginning of 2021 include five British children and one British man suspected of being criminally exploited.

Most – including three Albanian men, three Vietnamese men and a British man – were linked to labour related exploitation.

They are among 84 suspected modern slavery victims to have been flagged to the Government’s National Referral Mechanism Scheme since 2017.

CASE STUDY: A case of modern slavery which happened in plain sight here in Cumbria

Nationally, 3,777 people were referred to the NRM in the first quarter of this year – the highest number of referrals since the scheme began in 2009.

We understand that the scale of the problem is likely to be worse because the figures do not reflect suspected victims who do not become involved with the scheme.

'It can happen anywhere - even in Cumbria'

Cumbria Constabulary’s chief inspector Andrew Donnelly – the force’s lead for modern slavery – said the figures are proof modern slavery can happen anywhere, even in Cumbria.

He said: “People may in the past have thought cases such as these don’t happen somewhere like Cumbria – but we have real examples which demonstrate this is an issue for this county as well as the rest of the UK.”

In July last year, Carlisle man Sitar Ali was jailed alongside Nottingham man Defrim Paci over the exploitation of foreign car wash workers.

They were involved in a criminal enterprise involving the trafficking of Romanian people who were exploited through forced labour at Carlisle’s Shiny car wash on Warwick Road.

CASE STUDY: A case of modern slavery which happened in plain sight here in Cumbria

Their victims had been tempted to the UK with promises of work and a £30 a day wage – but once they arrived, they saw their wages regularly docked and their ID taken.

Some were left with £20 after working 11 hours a day, six days a week.

Following an investigation by Cumbria Constabulary officers, the pair were found guilty of modern slavery offences, with Ali sentenced to more than three years behind bars.

News and Star: CASE: Peter Swailes Junior of Carlisle, whose father kept a man in his shedCASE: Peter Swailes Junior of Carlisle, whose father kept a man in his shed

And earlier this year, Carlisle man Peter Swailes was given a suspended sentence over his part in the exploitation of a man kept in a shed for 40 years and paid £10 a day for exhausting labour.

'The cost-of-living crisis may make things worse'

Justine Currell, director of Unseen UK, said a rise in victims partly reflects improved awareness of the signs of slavery and improved efforts from authorities tackling the issue.

But she warned that the cost of living crisis is likely to make more people vulnerable to exploitative predators.

Ms Currell said: “More people will be struggling to have enough money to feed their families and to heat their homes.

“In areas where there are already high levels of deprivation and unemployment, that is going to contribute to more people becoming vulnerable and at risk of exploitation.”

Urging people to report signs of modern slavery, she added: “Sometimes people expect to see someone in shackles walking down the street.

“But it does not happen like that, sometimes you will just get a gut feeling and I’d like to see more people have the confidence to report that and let us take action from there.”

Any concerns can be reported to police on non-emergency number 101 or 999 in an emergency.

Support is available from the Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline on 08000 121 700.