British boys more at risk of modern slavery than any other group in UK, says study

London: Almost half of the victims of criminal exploitation in the UK are British boys aged under 18, according to a report calling for new laws to acknowledge them as ­victims of modern slavery.

The analysis, by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) thinktank and the charity Justice and Care, found that criminal exploitation is the most common type of modern slavery occurring in the UK in the past four years.

It found that 45% of those suffering from criminal exploitation are British boys aged 17 and under, according to referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a system used to identify people in danger or at risk of exploitation. The analysis found that about two-thirds were British and mostly teenagers and vulnerable adults who are “forced, coerced or groomed into committing crime for someone else’s benefit”.

It has raised concerns that such exploitation is not being recognised by the authorities because many of the young people involved are associated with criminality. “Professionals, families and victims themselves frequently do not apply the label of ‘modern slavery’ (nor even exploitation in some cases) to what is happening,” the analysis concludes.

Eleanor Lyons, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, backed the report’s demand for a widening of the Modern Slavery Act to include criminal exploitation, which she said would help with the “inconsistent” response to the problem from police and other agencies. “Criminals are using new ways to coerce people into committing crimes to line their own pockets,” she said. “Undoubtedly this can sometimes be difficult to understand, but those who are targeted by gangs can sometimes be forced to offend. They are victims too – ­victims of criminal exploitation.

“That is why this report rightly calls on the government and frontline policing to make sure criminal exploitation is prosecuted for what it is: a form of modern slavery. This will also allow us to do more to prevent the endless stream of young people and vulnerable adults being pulled into criminal exploitation and give them the support they deserve.”

Substance misuse, family circumstances, learning disabilities, school exclusion or financial deprivation were all factors identified as putting people at greater risk. Polling for the report found that a quarter of people in the most deprived parliamentary constituencies had seen signs of criminal exploitation in their community compared with 15% in the least deprived communities. A quarter of teachers in schools with the most deprived students had encountered suspected criminal exploitation compared with 12% in the most affluent schools.

Criminal exploitation often features in “county lines” drug dealing, where victims can be coerced or groomed into committing crime through debts, violence or manipulation. The report demands a new law tackling so-called cuckooing, where a victim is made to store weapons or criminal proceeds on their property.

A government spokesperson said: “Protecting children from all forms of exploitation is a key priority. As part of our county lines programme, we are investing up to £5m over three years to support exploited victims and their families. We also remain committed to rolling out the Independent Child Trafficking Guardian Service across England and Wales, and tackling the abhorrent practice of cuckooing by working closely with the police to use all the tools and powers available to them.”