LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With an eye in the rear-view mirror, London cab drivers have been enlisted in the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery, teaming up with police and anti-slavery groups to help identify victims and report any suspicious activity.
The Salvation Army, a leading charity supporting trafficking victims, said taxi drivers are in a unique position to spot possible victims or traffickers as they are out in the community day and night and aware of what is happening in their area.
"We are calling on taxi and mini cab drivers across London to be the ears and eyes of the community," said Anne Read, director of anti-trafficking and slavery at the Salvation Army.
As part of the campaign, police officers will distribute air fresheners to taxi drivers with information on the signs of human trafficking. Drivers can report their suspicions anonymously through a slavery helpline or via a smartphone app developed by anti-slavery group Stop The Traffik.
"We have seen the real difference it can make when our drivers are informed about what to look out for and where to report something suspicious they see," said Anjum Chowdhery from cab company Goldline.
There are an estimated 13,000 victims of forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude in Britain.
"Any piece of information, however big or small it is, could be relevant and form a missing piece of the picture that could help us rescue someone at risk, bring perpetrators to justice," Philip Brewer from the Metropolitan Police's modern slavery unit said in a statement on Monday.
The initiative comes as the Salvation Army revealed the number of trafficking and modern slavery victims it supports in England and Wales has gone up nearly fivefold since 2011.
The increase reflects a rise in both the number of people exploited and in the number seeking help as awareness of the issue has grown, according to a report by the charity on Sunday.
Between July 2015 and June 2016, the charity helped 2,013 victims of trafficking and modern slavery, up from 378 between July 2011 and July 2012, the report said.
Modern slavery has become a catch-all term to describe human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, sex trafficking, forced marriage and other slave-like exploitation.
"There is no limit to the imagination of a trafficker when it comes to people being bought and sold for their own gain... the public can come into direct contact with modern slaves, without even realising it," Read said in a statement.
Nearly 46 million people around the world are living as slaves, forced to work in factories, mines and farms, sold for sex, trapped in debt bondage or born into servitude, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation.
The Modern Slavery Act - which came into force in Britain in 2015 - increased jail terms for traffickers and brought in measures to protect people feared at risk of being enslaved.
Of those seeking help from the Salvation Army, 295 were from Albania, 137 from Nigeria, 137 from Poland and 109 were from Vietnam, said the charity, which provides support services including accommodation, legal advice and counselling.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May announced in July that 33.5 million pounds ($42 million) of the overseas aid budget would be put into a five-year fund to tackle the issue in countries like Nigeria.
May formed a new taskforce in September with British spy chiefs and police agencies in a bid to end modern slavery.
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories)