Latest figures from the National Crime Agency show that more than 2,000 potential trafficking victims were referred to the authorities in 2014 – 244 of whom were from Nigeria, a 31 per cent increase from the previous year. The highest number of potential victims were identified as being from Albania.
Campaigners believe the real figure of potential trafficking victims from Nigeria could be much higher, however.
Mr Hyland, the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s human trafficking unit, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am extremely concerned about this. And we’re talking about several hundred every year.
“This isn’t just a one-off – it’s continuous – so the treatment of these people, what they go through, is actually a very serious crime, so for me it’s a big problem.
“But also I think the fact that there is a demand for this kind of exploitation in the United Kingdom really concerns me, that there are people who will want to buy sex, will want to exploit, will want to have children as what are current-day slaves, so that is a really serious problem.”
Kevin Hyland said victims of modern slavery were often moved around the UK
Research published by the Home Office in December estimates that there are between 10,000 and 13,000 potential victims of slavery in the UK. Home Secretary Theresa May, speaking last year, described the scale of abuse as “shocking”.
Melissa (not her real name), who is in her 20s, was trafficked to the UK to work for a Nigerian woman in London as a domestic slave.
From the age of 10, she was made to clean the kitchen, sell food on a market, feed and bathe other children, and go to school and do her homework. She was beaten regularly, and locked in her room if she answered back.
She said: “I know that this sounds unbelievable and the reason it sounds unbelievable is because, you know, who does that to someone?
“I don’t understand the hatred because that’s how I feel – hated. I felt I didn’t do anything to deserve that and at some point I actually thought I was the one that was the problem, that there’s something about me that’s making her do that to me.”
Analysis: Ibrahim Shehu, BBC Africa
Trafficking for the purpose of domestic service and other forms of exploitative labour is a widespread phenomenon in Nigeria.
Children and women are recruited to serve middle-class families in Nigeria or abroad. Domestic servants are sometimes poorer relatives, whose families think they will get a better life in a wealthier household. And this can happen, alongside the cases of abuse. Others servants are procured from rural areas, where there are few economic opportunities.
Women are also trafficked for prostitution, with a promise of a well-paid job but they end up realising too late that they have been lured into a debt bond by criminal gangs. This is a particular problem in the southern Edo state, where there is a long tradition of trafficking women to work as prostitutes in Italy.
‘Handful of convictions’
Debbie Ariyo, executive director of the charity Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, is adamant that the real number of those trafficked to the UK from Nigeria is much higher because many victims are reluctant to speak out.
She deals with hundreds of victims and believes the reasons for these people coming to the UK in the first place are the same.
She said: “There is a notion among the families in Nigeria that once their family has come over here, they will have a better life, they will get better education, they will have better food and material things.
“A lot of people don’t see the abuse and exploitation and many of the young people who’ve tried to tell their parents back home, it’s difficult for the parents to accept that something like this could be happening in Britain.”
The government launched a campaign last year to raise awareness of modern slavery in the UK (image from Home Office TV advert)
The anti-slavery commissioner is calling for further prosecutions and for more victims to be identified, saying that a “handful of convictions is not enough”.
Mr Hyland said: “It’s about working with the law enforcement agencies in Nigeria – working with all those in the communities and telling them this could happen – and that’s never been brought together before so it’s unique.
“This is a new idea – Europol, Interpol, National Crime Agency, all must work together. It’s up to me to oversee this.
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Media caption More than 200 people from Nigeria have been referred to the authorities as potential victims of human trafficking
“This is not about lack of resources but about using them effectively.”
Tatiana Jardan, director of the Human Trafficking Foundation charity, believes that combating this problem is easier said than done because it’s a complex issue.
She said: “We believe the role of the commissioner is crucial but solving this is not going to be easy.
“This is a difficult type of trafficking because Nigerians believe in witchcraft so they’re worried about speaking out in case some harm comes to them. The police and other authorities desperately need more education so that they understand these complexities.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “This government is committed to tackling modern slavery, including human trafficking, which is why the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was passed earlier this year.
“This legislation, the first of its kind in Europe, gives law enforcement the tools they need to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice and enhances protection for victims.
“The Modern Slavery Strategy, which was published in November last year, sets out an ambitious plan, including work with international partners, to increase collaboration and target human traffickers.
“We are already addressing the specific issue of human trafficking in Nigeria. This includes working closely with the National Crime Agency and the Nigerian National Agency for the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons to identify and disrupt Nigerian networks involved in the movement of potential victims.”
With the commissioner only having been in post for six months, campaigners say it would be unfair to make an assessment now.
Some argue the creation of his role in the first place is a sign the issue is being taken seriously.