The number of victims of modern slavery identified in Northern Ireland has almost doubled in a year, inspectors have found.
The true extent of crimes around slavery and human trafficking remains unclear, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) said.
The CJINI has published its first in-depth assessment of how the criminal justice system in the region deals with such activity.
Inspectors found that in 2019, there were 91 potential victims identified in Northern Ireland.
The year before, the number was 52 and the year before that it was 31.
Jacqui Durkin, chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland, said: “Modern slavery and human trafficking exploits men, women and children who are already vulnerable.
“It may seem like something that doesn’t happen in our community, but it does and it’s happening now.”
Inspectors commended the working relationships that exist between specialist officers working in the PSNI’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit and specialist prosecutors working in the Public Prosecution Service.
They also praised the PSNI’s link-up with the UK-wide National Crime Agency.
However, they said more work was needed to get a grip on the scale of the problem in Northern Ireland.
Ms Durkin said this was particularly the case with child victims.
Of the 91 victims identified in 2019, 16 were children.
“Victims of modern slavery and human trafficking are among the most vulnerable and traumatised in the criminal justice system,” she said.
“They are often terrified to speak out and seek help.
“These offences are often described as being ‘hidden in plain sight’.
“They can involve people working on farms, in food production, at car washes, in nail bars, in domestic settings cleaning homes and providing childcare, as well as children who are trafficked across Northern Ireland for sexual exploitation.”
The chief inspector added: “This inspection identified further work was required to better understand the nature and scale of modern slavery and human trafficking and develop a more effective legislative and strategic response.”
Inspectors have made three strategic and eight operational recommendations to help deliver further improvement.
Among the findings, inspectors identified a need for a greater strategic focus on pursuing perpetrators of trafficking offences against children.
They said it was also important that frontline police officers understood modern slavery as child abuse and applied the appropriate child protection referral arrangements.
Ms Durkin added: “Specialist police officers in the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit and specialist prosecutors worked really well together to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking but there is more to be done.
“It would be beneficial to extend this model to cases involving children who are victims of modern slavery and human trafficking offences.”
Detective Chief Inspector Gareth Talbot, from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit, welcomed the report.
He said it was a positive report which “acknowledged that excellent working relationships exist between specialist police officers and specialist prosecutors working in the PPS”.
“We will continue to build on this good work and following the recommendations made as a result of the inspection, we will be developing an action plan to deliver on these,” he said.
“We will also continue to work with other partners, specifically the Department of Justice and the Public Prosecution Service, to help them with any recommendations they are leading on.”
Justice Minister Naomi Long also welcomed the report and praised the “excellent professional relationship” between police and the prosecution service.
“The report highlights the importance of partnership working between the Department of Justice, law enforcement and victim support organisations,” she said.
“I particularly welcome the recommendation to review the Northern Ireland Modern Slavery Strategy to take account of issues raised which include a longer term approach to raising awareness.
“I agree that it is crucial to involve all relevant Northern Ireland departments in the design and delivery of awareness-raising to ensure it is used as widely as possible as a key prevention and detection tool.
“My Department is already taking steps to address a longer term approach and consulted recently on proposals to amend sections 12 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.
“I will also launch a public consultation on the 21/22 Modern Slavery Strategy this week.”