Human trafficking: How landlords can help police tackle this evil practice

residential property investor rpi
Sally Walmsley
Written by Sally Walmsley

It is something that seems a million miles from our comfortable existence her in the UK, but human trafficking is happening in this country, right here, right now. Tens of thousands of people in this country are thought to be victims and now police say landlords are in a unique position to help.

 This week the BBC reported that modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK is far more prevalent than previously thought, with more than 300 live policing operations and cases affecting “every large town and city in the country”.

Residential Property Investor has been working with the National Crime Agency to provide advice for landlords who may be unwittingly renting homes to traffickers. 

It seems unbelievable that such things happen in a civilised society – men, women and children forced to live in filthy, overcrowded conditions, working for little or no pay for illegal gangmasters –  yet the figures speak for themselves.

Statistics from the National Crime Agency show that last year 3,805 potential victims were identified in the UK alone, however it believes this is the tip of the iceberg’ and there are in fact tens of thousands.

Human trafficking involves recruitment, harbouring or transporting people to be exploited by being forced into prostitution, labour, begging, criminality, slavery, marriage and even organ removal.

And after the international drugs trade, it is tied with arms dealing as the second largest criminal industry in the world.

Traffickers use of violence, deception or coercion to force their victims to work against their will.

But while these criminals operate in the shadows in a bid to keep their crimes under wraps, every man, woman and child being exploited in this way lives and works somewhere – and according to police more often than not these premises are rented.

That is where you, the landlord come in. Police, support agencies and charities set up to support these people say it is this prolific use of rental accommodation that puts landlords in a unique position when it comes to helping victims and tackling this horrific crime.

Their fate is in your hands.

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is not the same as people smuggling, which sees people taken across international borders for a fee. In this situation the smuggled person is then free.

Instead a trafficker is moving a person for exploitation. There is no need to cross an international border. Human trafficking occurs at a national level, or even within one community as well as internationally.

Indeed, according to recent figures the most common countries of origin among people who had been reported as potential victims of trafficking were Albanian, UK and Vietnamese nationals.

Victims who are trafficked from a foreign country may not speak English, their travel and identity documents will have been taken and they are threatened with violence if they plan or attempt to escape. Identity documents may be forged.

However there is no ‘typical’ victim of trafficking and very often people don’t see themselves as trafficked or understand that they are being exploited and are entitled to help and support.

The National Crime Agency said that often people are promised jobs in factories or agriculture and while they are given jobs, huge deductions are taken from their wages by traffickers, who say the money is to rent payments and transport, meaning they can be left with next to nothing.

Those who complain are often threatened or beaten.

Some reports claim that, after deductions these worked could get just £7 for a week’s work.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, an independent national charity, said that often traffickers will play the role of a friend or interpreter to keep their victims in check, particularly when attending official appointments with a landlord or bank for example.

Often someone will take their victim’s ID card with a letter of authority and attend the appointment on their behalf. This should be a red flag as an indicator of control.

Solicitors working with the charity said this is particularly a problem with victims from the European Union who have a right to reside, open bank accounts and apply for benefits.

How do traffickers successfully rent homes and what should I look for?

James Behan, senior manager in the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit of the National Crime Agency said landlords are often duped into believing they are renting to a couple or family, before criminals move huge numbers of people in.

He said: “In my experience a landlord could believe they are renting to a couple or family, but in fact these people could be sub-letting to 15 people who then ‘hotbed’ (sleep on beds or mattresses in the home in shifts).

“They frequently rent in areas where housing is cheaper. Ultimately there is a cost associated with human trafficking and if someone wants to exploit victims they will want to do it on the cheap.

“We would ask landlords to look out for warning signs, when they or their agent visits does it look like the right number of people are living in the home – or are there mattresses on the floor for example?

“Similarly have the neighbours reported anything suspicious. Are there lots of people coming and going? Although it can be difficult, particularly if they live far away or abroad, we would advise landlords where possible to carry out checks themselves.”

As well as being used to house people being exploited rental homes can also be used for illegal activities including prostitution and cannabis cultivation.

Behan added: “There is a correlation. The situation with cannabis farms is well known, with victims forced to work as gardeners to tend the plants. There is also the potential for brothels to be set up in rented properties.

“In Devon and Cornwall it was recently discovered holiday lets were being used as pop-up brothels. A slightly different set of circumstances perhaps, but similar in that criminals are using rental properties for illegal activities.”

Human trafficking in numbers

  • 3,805 potential victims were submitted to the national referral mechanism in 2016, an increase of 17% on 2015.
  • Potential victims were of 108 different nationalities
  • Albanian, UK and Vietnamese nationals are the most commonly reported potential victims
  • The most common exploitation type was labour exploitation, which includes criminal exploitation such as cannabis cultivation.
  • Of the 3,805 reports 150 were in Scotland, 123 in Wales and 33 in Northern Ireland, with the remaining 3,499 in England.


Operation Pheasant

There have been successful multi-agency operations to tackle trafficking.

Operation Pheasant was a successful multi-agency approach set up to address the problems of exploitation, fraud, crime and conditions of private rented housing in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire.

The area was identified as having a rapidly increasing migrant population who went to the town to work, mainly in agriculture and food processing and the operation was launched following a surge of shoplifting, homelessness and assaults in the town.

Police and the local authority used regular housing inspections of HMOs as a way of investigating trafficking and exploitation, discovering issues of high rent, overcrowding, unsafe/unpleasant living conditions, illegal eviction, beds in sheds.

Council officers reported finding 10 people sharing a two-bed home.  Nine workers who were sharing a three-bed home, which would normally be rented to a family for around £600 a month – were each paying £200 out of their wages to live there – a total of £1,800.

The residents either refused to say, or did not know who they were paying this money to and it is unclear whether the landlords of these homes knew what was happening

The operation uncovered 19 cases involving allegations of human trafficking and 220 of illegal gangmaster activity.

What are the penalties?

Traffickers can be prosecuted for a range of offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, Asylum and Immigration Act 2004, Protection of Children’s Act 1978, Sexual Offences Act 2003 and other relevant legislation, with punishments of up to 14 years.

The Crown Prosecution Service said that landlord could also be at risk of being prosecuted under Section 4 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, although it would have to be proved to the court that the landlord knew that trafficking was taking place on their property and did nothing to stop it.

It has also prosecuted landlords for knowingly allowing their properties to be used as brothels.

What should I look out for?

If you suspect your premises may be being used for trafficking, you can prevent this form of abuse by contacting the police.

Key questions you should ask yourself are:

  • Do I know who is living in my premises?
  • Is the occupant the same person that completed the tenancy agreement?
  • Do the occupants change on a regular basis?
  • Are the premises suitable and appropriate for the number of occupants?
  • Is the occupant in possession of their own passport, identification or travel documents?
  • Is the occupant able to communicate on their own behalf?
  • Does the occupant act as if they were instructed or coached by someone else?
  • Is the occupant responsible for paying for their own tenancy?
  • If not, who is responsible for paying for the tenancy?
  • Does the occupant have freedom of movement?
  • Does the occupant appear withdrawn or frightened?
  • Is there evidence of the premises being used for prostitution?
  • Have there been anti-social behaviour complaints?

What should I do if I suspect someone is being trafficked?

If you think someone living in your rented home is a victim of trafficking contact your local police, who will be able to help and if you feel someone is in immediate danger call 999.

Alternatively, you can call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 0121 700.

What happens after you report trafficking

The first thing the police will do is protect someone who has been trafficked from anyone that might harm them.

The police and specialist organisations will work together to provide the victim with practical and emotional support. They’ll get medical care and help arranging accommodation in safe place, away from their traffickers.

If it’s safe, they’ll be helped to return to their home country. If it’s not safe to return, perhaps because they might be trafficked again, they can apply for asylum in the UK.

About the author

Sally Walmsley

Sally Walmsley

Sally Walmsley is the Magazine and Digital Editor for the NRLA. With 20 years’ experience writing for regional and national newspapers and magazines she is responsible for editing our members' magazine 'Property', producing our articles for our news site, the weekly and monthly bulletins and editorial content for our media partners.

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