MORE than 250 potential slavery victims were referred to Essex Police last year - and half of them were children.

David Garston, shadow cabinet member for community safety in Southend, has been left “absolutely disgusted” by the rise in modern slavery cases referred to the force, with 265 recorded in 2020.

This was 38 more than the 227 recorded in 2019, according to data from the Home Office.

Shockingly, they included 135 children, equating to around 51 per cent of all referrals made to the team.

Determined to take action, Mr Garston has assured stamping out the “appalling” problem is a top priority.

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

The councillor said: “This is absolutely awful. In society we should be enhancing and protecting the lives of our children, not heading in the opposite direction.

“It is obviously very concerning and quite a shock, it really is appalling people are going through this. I’d ask any neighbours to advise us if they spot anything out of the ordinary or unusual which could indicate this is going on.

“Residents have the best chance of spotting things in their neighbourhood where they’re there most of the time, so if something doesn’t seem right please do report it.”

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Anti-slavery charity Unseen has warned of a potential rise in victims following the Covid-19 pandemic.

It added the UK’s economic downturn has created more vulnerable people who could be at risk of exploitation.

Across the country, 10,613 potential victims were referred to police last year – similar to the 10,616 identified in 2019.

While 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, 84 were identified to Essex Police.

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

Mr Garston continued: “Tackling the crime will be top of our agenda, no person or child should be subject to this.”