A police boss is calling for urgent legislation to crack down on modern slavery and human trafficking.
According to North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones, ferry companies should be legally obliged to keep accurate passenger manifests.
Mr Jones fears the port Holyhead is a soft target for traffickers.
He’s also worried the Brexit vote will make a “mess” of the so-called Common Travel Area which means that currently people can travel freely between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
He pointed to the fact that Holyhead is the second busiest ferry port in the UK and handles two million passengers a year.
The commissioner’s comments came as he opened North Wales’ first ever modern slavery and human trafficking conference at The Interchange in Old Colwyn.
The conference was attended by representatives of local authorities from across North Wales, social workers, probation officers, health boards and other government agencies.
Mr Jones said: “The Common Travel Area provides a real vulnerability in national security and unfortunately real opportunities for those in the business of trafficking people.
“I continue to press this issue nationally and have called on the government that now’s not the time to reduce resources at our borders. North Wales Police have a presence at the port and have been involved in operations to uncover trafficking.
“I have been pressing ferry companies to keep a full manifest of travellers as is done with air travel. Many people who use the ferries to enter the UK mainland at Holyhead have no record of their journey.
“Passports and often individual tickets are not required to permit travel. This is very helpful to the traffickers enabling them to move people unnoticed with ease. We must wake up to this vulnerability.
“Holyhead Port should not be a soft target for offenders. I have asked for legislation to mandate the ferry companies to keep accurate passenger information.
“Effectively tackling human trafficking and modern slavery requires intelligence led policing. We need support from the Government requiring manifests in order for the police to develop that intelligence.
Earlier this year Mr Jones funded the appointment of the UK’s first police support officer dedicated to helping victims of modern slavery and human trafficking, which is a key priority in the commissioner’s Police and Crime plan, his blueprint for policing North Wales.
Mr Jones added: “Potential trafficking through Holyhead, however, is not simply an issue for Anglesey. It would be naïve to consider that where victims and perpetrators have passed through the port, that’s where the problem ends.
“And it’s often the case that at the point of coming through the port individuals have not yet become victims. They are travelling willingly with the trafficker under the promise of work, accommodation, education and so forth.
“It’s often only after they reach their destination they realise they have become a victim.
These people can end up in cities across the UK, in London, Manchester, Birmingham. They can also end up in Wrexham, Mold, Colwyn Bay or Rhyl.”
Among the keynote speakers at the conference was Roy McComb, Deputy Director, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, at the National Crime Agency.
Mr McComb believes the official figures do not properly reflect the numbers of victims in North Wales or the rest of the UK.
He said: “If you see something suspicious report it, your call will be investigated. If you have your car washed on waste land by 10 Romanians for a fiver, the chances are they are the victims of modern slavery.
“Or a man paying for sex with an 18 year old Vietnamese girl that can’t speak English should realise, the chances are she too is a victim of modern slavery. We can reduce demand if we report suspicions and don’t use the services of potential victims.
“Raising public awareness is vital. We need the public to know modern day slavery is right here on everyone’s doorstep whether you live in a big city or in rural areas of North Wales.
“The actual numbers of victims of modern day slavery in the UK is estimated to be between 10 and 14,000. The official figure suggests there are only around 4,000. However, we believe the actual figure is in the hundreds of thousands.”
“Modern day slavery and human trafficking is now a national priority. The issue is criminals see their victims as nothing more than a commodity. They gain control of their victims often using fear and violence to exploit them.”
It was a message echoed by Kevin Hyland OBE, the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
He said: “We need to work at every level, local, national and international, to protect victims. In 2016 we had 26 modern day slavery referrals in North Wales resulting in 78 crimes being recorded and 31 arrests being made. Three were charged.
“We are starting to shine a light on the issue and take action but we need to accept the shame for what is happening. We, working here in North Wales, are influencing the rest of the UK and the world and we are making a difference.”
Paul Broadbent, Chief Executive of the Gangmasters Labour Abuse Authority, said: “Human trafficking and modern day slavery is a low risk, high yield crime. We need to make it a high risk, low yield crime.
“Wage theft is a crime. We know 600,000 people in the UK aren’t paid the minimum wage. We can perhaps accept, at a push, that half of those aren’t paid the full amount due to administrative errors. That still leaves 300,000 potential victims.”
For the Modern Day Slavery Helpline please call 08000 121 700.
North Wales Police has further information on its modern slavery website at www.north-wales.police.uk/advice-and-support/stay-safe/modern-slavery.aspx.
If you suspect slavery is happening near you please report it to police on 101, anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 012 1700 or BAWSO on 08007318147. The victim help service is available from 8am-8pm Monday to Friday and 9am-5pm on Saturdays. It can be contacted by Freephone on 0300 3030159, by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or via the websites www.victimhelpcentrenorthwales.org.uk or www.canolfangymorthiddioddefwyrgogleddcymru.org.uk