MORE than 70 potential slavery victims were referred to police in Cheshire last year – and around a third of them were children.

Home Office data reveals a rise in modern slavery cases referred to Cheshire Constabulary, with 78 recorded in 2020, 22 more than the 56 recorded in 2019.

They included 25 children – equating to around 32 per cent of all referrals.

Modern slavery can involve domestic enslavement, forced labour, sexual or criminal exploitation.

Anti-slavery charity Unseen has warned of a potential increase in victims following the coronavirus pandemic, adding that the UK's economic downturn has created more vulnerable people who could be at risk of exploitation.

Across the UK, 10,613 potential victims were referred to police last year – broadly in line with the record 10,616 identified in 2019.

Between January and March this year, almost 3,000 further potential victims were flagged, a slight increase on the same period in 2020.

Of those, 27 were identified to police in Cheshire.

Unseen said the closure of recognised slavery hotspots – such as car washes and nail bars – during lockdown periods in the UK meant potential victims were less visible during the pandemic, when referrals linked to adults fell nationally.

The Home Office said restrictions amid the pandemic are likely to have caused a plateau in referral numbers.

Unseen's Justine Currel said: “Covid-19 and the subsequent economic downturn affected the visibility of the threat in such places as car washes and nail bars.

“And as you would expect, the proportion of calls from the general public declined during the lockdowns as fewer people were out and about.

“Now we’re emerging from lockdown, we’re seeing contacts significantly increasing.

“It’s too early to say how many of these contacts will result in victims of modern slavery being identified."

A Home Office spokesperson said the Government had intensified enforcement action to crack down on those exploiting young people and highlighted 1,000 arrests linked to "county lines" activity in May - which sees gangs using vulnerable people to transport drugs from cities to small towns which rose by almost a third nationally in 2020

The spokesperson added: “Through the Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract, delivered through The Salvation Army, we provide adult victims in England and Wales with specialist support to help them to rebuild their lives, including safehouse accommodation, financial support and assistance in accessing health care and legal support.”