The rescue of 17 suspected victims of human trafficking by police in Leeds may only have been the “tip of the iceberg”.
West Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner (PCC) said there may be many more suffering exploitation and the issue was one which “cannot be ignored”.
Mark Burns-Williamson called for a national working group to be set up to tackle trafficking during a conference in Leeds yesterday.
It comes after a major police investigation led to 17 people being rescued from suspected exploitation at addresses across the city last November.
Mr Burns-Williamson said: “Human trafficking is an issue which exists within West Yorkshire and that fact cannot be ignored.
“The potential scale of the issue has been revealed in recent ground-breaking police and partnership operations.
“In November for instance, a total of 17 men, women and children were rescued from exploitation at 25 different properties across Leeds, and this may only be the tip of the iceberg.”
More than 100 delegates gathered at the John Charles Centre for Sport in south Leeds to discuss ways to deal with trafficking and modern slavery.
Representatives from the police, charity Hope for Justice and the Salvation Army were among the speakers at yesterday’s event.
Mr Burns-Williamson said a national working group of PCCs should be set up to share ideas about how best to address the problem.
“By working together, we can better support victims and target the perpetrators of this horrendous crime and practice,” he added.
Last November, a three-day operation saw 60 police officers, supported by council staff, health agencies, Hope for Justice and the Salvation Army, rescue 17 suspected human trafficking victims in Leeds. Most were from Slovakia.
The eight people arrested remain on bail.
Hope for Justice is calling for a regional anti-trafficking network to be established in Yorkshire to bring agencies together to share good practice.
Director Allan Doherty said: “It is also vitally important that agencies continue to provide awareness training for their front line staff so they can spot the signs of human trafficking.”