POLICE today said 17 men, women and children had been rescued from exploitation after a huge investigation into human trafficking in Leeds.
The three-day operation saw 60 police officers, supported by council staff, health agencies, Hope for Justice and the Salvation Army, swoop on 25 addresses across the city.
The teams visited addresses primarily in south and west of Leeds, and took three men, four women and 19 children to a special reception centre where they were given access to specialist services. The victims are said to be mostly from Slovakia.
The move comes as part of a police investigation which began in September into an organised criminal gang thought to be behind human trafficking, large-scale benefit fraud and labour exploitation in Leeds and beyond.
Eight people have been arrested as part of the investigation and bailed.
Senior Investigating Officer Det Chief Insp Andy Williams said: “A multi-agency operation on this scale involving such a large number of potential human trafficking victims is unprecedented in West Yorkshire.
“We are therefore very pleased that it has been successful in rescuing a significant number of people from the exploitative situations they had been trafficked into from their home country.
“Many were living in very poor housing conditions with no access to local support services and little if any income to exist on. Others were having their benefits taken from them and being exploited by being forced to work long hours for little or no pay.
“Those that we and our partner agencies have rescued from these situations will now have access to a comprehensive package of support from a range of agencies that will help them to rebuild their lives free from exploitation.
“Our criminal investigation into these matters is ongoing and we expect to make further arrests as part of our efforts to bring those responsible to justice. We hope this will send a message to those who are involved in this type of activity and give other victims confidence that the authorities can provide the help and support they need to escape from their situations.”
Police said 33 people who were approached during the operation “preferred not to co-operate” and remained where they were.
West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Mark Burns-Williamson said: “It is a sad fact that vulnerable people in society are targeted in this way. Tackling this sickening crime is a key commitment within my Police and Crime Plan.
“I am determined to do everything in my power to help protect people in the county and collaborative multi-agency work is absolutely central to this.”