TODAY is not only anti-slavery day but it also marks the first anniversary of a police project set up to support victims of slavery and exploitation.

Victims First Willow Project, set up by the Police and Crime Commissioner for Thames Valley, helps people who have been affected by all forms of exploitation such as modern slavery, human trafficking and County Lines drug dealing.

It has supported 445 victims of exploitation since its launch and works with their families to provide crisis intervention, advocacy and long term practical and emotional assistance.

Out of the victims it has helped, 52 per cent were male and 48 per cent were female with the majority (74 per cent) being British.

It works with victims and their families to provide crisis intervention, advocacy and long term practical and emotional assistance.

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Latest statistics show that there were 262 modern slavery crimes in the Thames Valley between September 2018 and August 2019.

In its first year, 46 per cent of those supported by the project were victims of criminal exploitation - which is when a person commits a crime for someone else’s gain.

This includes exploitation by County Drug Lines, cuckooing and shoplifting. Other forms of exploitation reported included forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude.

Victims First Willow Project also provides help for victims who experience serious crime and who have developed complex needs as a result.

Thames Valley Police say Modern Slavery is a crime that can be difficult to detect and can go unreported.

Anthony Stansfeld, Police and Crime Commissioner for Thames Valley is glad that it is making a difference.

He said: “I launched the Willow Project due to the gap in support for victims of exploitation, and I am pleased to see so many victims being supported by the service within the first year.

“I welcome the increase in reporting of slavery and exploitation however, as a hidden crime we know that it is more prevalent than figures suggest.

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“This Anti-Slavery Day I encourage people to be alert to the signs of slavery and exploitation in their communities and report any concerns to the Modern Slavery Helpline. It is clear from the Willow Project’s first year figures that many people in our communities are vulnerable to exploitation and it is important that we continue to identify these crimes and provide support to victims.”

Oxford City Council recently held a round table event with Elmore Community Services where survivors of modern slavery shared their experiences in Oxford Town Hall.

Nicola Bell, programme manager for the Victims First Willow Project said “Exploitation is a heinous, often hidden crime which seeks out the most vulnerable people in our society. The launch of the Willow Project was crucial in enabling the identification and safeguarding of many potential victims and ensuring that their rights, needs and requirements were recognised.

“Our team has worked hard over the past 12 months to fill a much needed gap in the support provision for victims of exploitation; ensuring those victims get the best support and care, in what can be a long process, to help them regain their dignity and the confidence to make choices and move forward with their lives.

“We are delighted that with the support from Willow, over 400 people are now able to live a life that is not controlled by others and who are finally free from the grips of exploitation.”

Victims of the modern slavery and exploitation can be referred to the Willow Project through Victims First on 03001234148.