More than 260 cases of modern slavery were identified in Bedfordshire last year, new figures show, prompting renewed calls for the public to keep their eyes open for signs of criminal exploitation.
The number of potential victims of modern slavery passed through to the national referral mechanism (NRM) in the Bedfordshire Police area was the fifth highest of all police force areas in the UK.
Most of the 262 referrals were made via national agencies, linked to London Luton Airport and Yarls Wood Immigration Centre.
UK Visas and Immigration made 123 referrals, while Home Office Immigration Enforcement referred 84 people to the NRM.
A Beds police spokesman said: “The number of people referred from Yarls Wood in particular may skew the overall picture of slavery and trafficking being committed in Bedfordshire, but the impact these referrals have on local resources is significant.
Beds Police identified 18 potential victims last year, up from four the previous year.
They included three girls - two from the UK and one from Romania - being sexually exploited; women from Afghanistan and Romania being sexually exploited, as well as men from Bulgaria, Romania and the UK being exploited for their labour.
Bedfordshire’s three local authorities also identified 12 victims between them.
The Salvation Army made 16 referrals.
Detective Inspector Katie Dounias said: “Given the county’s proximity to London, diverse population and transport links such as the airport and the M1, Bedfordshire faces a greater challenge than most police forces when it comes to vulnerable people being criminally exploited.
“Slavery in today’s world can take many forms, beyond the common idea of people being forced to work long hours for little or no money.
“This includes cuckooing, where vulnerable people have their homes taken over by gangs to be used as drugs dens; children or vulnerable adults being forced to commit criminal acts such as dealing drugs, pickpocketing or shoplifting; forced marriage, or being forced to work in the sex industry.
“We need the public’s help to spot all these types of modern slavery and exploitation taking place in our communities, so we can help protect vulnerable people and bring the perpetrators of this criminality to justice.”
Bedfordshire made the headlines in 2014 when eight men were rescued from the Greenacres travellers camp in Little Billington. Several members of the same family were jailed for modern day slavery offences.
Anyone who suspects someone is at risk of modern slavery can contact police on 101 or via the online reporting centre on the Bedfordshire Police website.
They can also speak to the Modern Slavery Helpline confidentially on 08000 121 700.