Human traffickers are forcing vulnerable people into slavery in businesses across the North-East. On Monday morning, Cleveland Police raided a nail bar and found two suspected victims. Joanna Morris went along to find out more about the force's efforts to tackle the issue

BEHIND the innocuous front of a nail bar on a Teesside high street there are two women kneeling at the feet of a pensioner who is as shocked as they are when five police officers interrupt the pampering session.

The salon’s owner is on her feet quickly, angered at the intrusion and fast to berate officers for invading her workplace for what she claims is the sixth time.

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She screams so loudly about the perceived breach of her human rights – “You are only doing this because I am Vietnamese, we all have the right to work” – that the plain-clothed operation quickly attracts public attention.

Throughout the heated exchange, her companion – a young woman, appearing barely out of her teens and shivering through fear or winter cold – looks on silently.

Within an hour, she is being escorted to a place of safety, quickly identified by the officers as being a suspected victim of human trafficking.

A young man, discovered in a back room at the nail bar, is taken too. With the help of a telephone interpreter, the team – led by Detective Sergeant Jeanette Turnbull - find out enough to suspect that he did not enter the country “in an approved manner” and that he may have paid a significant amount of money to be in the UK.

The pair add to the growing number of suspected victims of modern day slavery and human trafficking uncovered by Cleveland Police in recent months.

They are among those believed to have been smuggled into the country by organised criminals, made to live in uninhabitable spaces, exploited and forced or coerced to work in inhumane conditions for long hours and little – if any – pay.

Modern day slaves are not universally foreign, but they are universally vulnerable, according to Chief Inspector Wendy Tinkler, who works with Cleveland Police’s recently established VEMT (Vulnerable, Exploited, Missing or Trafficked) team.

Victims of slavery are almost always in debt to those who control their lives, she says. They commonly live under threat, fearful of their own safety and that of their families, who are often targeted by callous criminals.

Those at risk may be trafficked, homeless, sex workers, mentally or physically disabled, missing from care, in the social care system or lacking in family support.

Some may not even be aware that they are victims, labouring under conditions that may seem abhorrent in the UK but compare favourably to their own backgrounds.

In line with a nationwide initiative from the National Crime Agency, Cleveland Police has devoted significant resources to tackling a crime that has often gone under the radar, a crime that relies in part on the complicity of the community to thrive.

And it is a crime that it will take the community to solve, said Ch.Insp Tinkler, as she urged people to keep their eyes and ears open for signs of modern day slavery.

Because, police believe, this is a crime that takes place under our noses, within the businesses we frequent, on our high streets.

“Victims are walking among us”, says DC Aaron Brown, prompted by the sight of a man advertising a takeaway firm on a roundabout in pouring rain, “It’s everywhere but it’s underground and a lot of people turn a blind eye to it – they’ll see a new car wash and happily pay £3 to get their car cleaned cheaply.

"They should be thinking about who’s washing it, how much they’re being paid, where they’re living and in what kind of situation, whether they’re there of their own free will.”

Across the UK, victims – often promised a better life, a way out of difficulty or debt - have been found in nail bars, strip clubs, massage parlours, in homeless shelters, care homes, cleaning companies, houses of multiple occupancy, farms, factories and takeaways.

This year, Cleveland Police has made 20 arrests and referred at least 28 suspected victims to national agencies. Six investigations are currently on-going, including three which are cross-border. The VEMT team believe this is the tip of the iceberg.

DI Chris Stone said: “This is an absolutely horrendous crime and we’re just starting to lift the rock, we’re proactively looking for it and more aware of the issues than we ever have been.

"We need the community to be aware, too – if you come across someone you feel has been taken advantage of, please do not stay silent."

Anyone with concerns about trafficking or slavery should contact police on non-emergency number 101.