Hope for Justice’s provision of victim support was “instrumental” in tearing down the UK’s largest human trafficking network, police have said.
The global anti-slavery charity worked alongside West Midlands Police on the four-year investigation, dubbed Operation Fort.
The Modern Slavery Police Transformation Unit has released a publication, Operation Fort: Safeguarding and Multi-Agency Working Debriefing Report, identifying the strengths of the partnership, which resulted in the sentencing of eight members of an organised crime group who trafficked vulnerable people from Poland, including the homeless, ex-prisoners and alcoholics, to the UK with the promise of employment, money and accommodation.
Detective Superintendent Sheon Sturland, Unit Commander of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Modern Slavery and Organised Immigration Crime Unit, said: “Operation Fort was led by West Midlands Police and is the largest successfully prosecuted modern slavery investigation in the UK. The victim support provided by Hope for Justice was instrumental in taking apart this organised crime network. The perseverance shown by Hope for Justice, to get the best outcome for all of the victims they supported, is testament to the outstanding work they do.”
Police and Hope for Justice identified 92 victims in this investigation but believe there could have been as many as 400 people in total who were put to work in the West Midlands.
They were made to live in squalid conditions, often with no hot water, no bed and little food, and were exploited through forced labour conditions at farms, factories and recycling centres, to name a few.
More than 50 victims were supported by the charity as they bravely gave evidence during two trials, and many of these individuals are still being supported by Hope for Justice today.
The organisation supported victims on a court visit to familiarise them with the surroundings and help to reassure them ahead of giving evidence. The charity also advocated on behalf of victims to ensure that they could access the support they needed, particularly where there were language barriers. The report describes these interventions as “key” to keeping victims aware and informed.
The report reads: “In early 2015, it was one of Hope for Justice’s staff, working alongside a support worker – an advisor from a church group who had received training from the charity on spotting the signs of modern slavery – who first recognised there were victims in his area within the Polish community.
“They supported victims and attended the police station with them to speak with officers. Their support then continued throughout the operation as they identified more than 30 new victims coming forward during the busiest week.”
Our investigators shared intelligence with police and quickly spotted similarities in victims’ stories suggesting an organised criminal conspiracy.
Many of the victims were forced to work long hours and given as little as £20 per week by the traffickers, who pocketed the bulk of their salaries. If they objected, they were beaten or threatened with violence. The workers were forced to live in cramped and rat-infested properties across Birmingham.
This mistreatment and manipulation left many victims fearful of authority figures – a tactic often employed by traffickers to instil fear. There have been instances of perpetrators dressing as police officers before raping victims. This kind of intimidation falsely convinces victims that the police cannot be trusted and should be feared.
The debrief report states: “Hope for Justice identified there were extreme anxieties and misunderstandings for victims around reporting based on a mistrust of authority figures they were asked to engage with.”
The report, which has recently been made available to share publicly, and its recommendations for effective improvements are being shared nationally with police forces and their modern slavery leads who work to support forces to provide the best service to victims of modern slavery and to improve judicial outcomes.
Detective Superintendent Sheon Sturland said: “The Modern Slavery Police Transformation Unit undertook the first safeguarding de-brief of this investigation, which resulted in a number of positive recommendations to improve collaborative partnership working for future modern slavery investigations. This collaborative partnership improves the level of support for the victims of these horrendous crimes and helps to ensure that the offenders are brought to justice.”
Eight members of the gang were sentenced to a combined 55 years. A further four people fled the UK in 2019 and are awaiting extradition to face trial.
Steve Howard, Hope for Justice’s Hubs Team Manager, said: “We are incredibly proud to have worked alongside West Midlands Police and other partners to help identify victims in this modern slavery case, and to bring those responsible to justice.
“This organised crime gang exploited some of the most vulnerable people in society and profited from their misery. For some of the survivors, their recovery is still ongoing.
“Modern slavery is one of the most horrifying crimes in existence and more must be done to put an end to it. We need everyone to play their part by helping to spot the signs and to report anything suspicious.”
Learn how to spot the signs and common indicators of modern slavery here.