The meeting was initiated by the Bishop of East Anglia, Rt Rev Alan Hopes and was led by Bishop Patrick Lynch, Chair of the Office of Migration Policy for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW).
It was a round-table discussion which heard from Catholic priests and specialist police officers with detailed knowledge of vulnerable communities in the region from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Far East.
The agricultural industry across West Norfolk, Fenland and Lincolnshire was particularly highlighted with gang masters from Lithuania operating widely.
Police officers working with the Lithuanian and Romany gypsy communities in Fenland explained how gang-masters exploited vulnerable new arrivals to the area by isolating them from the local community and controlled them by providing over-crowded housing and transport to work in the fields. They would then take a large proportion of the wages and sometimes passports in return. Workers then often ended up in debt to the gang-masters, giving them more leverage over the exploited workers and their bank accounts, which were often used to perpetrate fraud.
Female workers who got into debt were given the option of taking part in sham marriages and fraud to earn their way out of debt.
PC Petr Torak, from Peterborough, told the meeting that within a 12-month period 84 sex workers and 25 brothels were identified in Peterborough, many in ordinary-looking houses. The largest nationality of women involved was Romanian, followed by Thai and Hungarian.
In one four-month period in 2014, five Lithuanians in Wisbech were known by the Police to have committed suicide by hanging themselves.
Many of the exploited workers come from Catholics countries and sometimes attended local Masses in East Anglian Catholic churches, giving priests the opportunity to support them and maybe help intervene.
Initiatives discussed at the meeting included producing information cards in appropriate languages about helplines and legal rights, appointing a priest to work with the Lithuanian communities and possibly setting up safe houses to facilitate escape from slavery.
After the meeting, Bishop Pat Lynch said: "The meeting was very successful in looking at the challenges of human trafficking and modern day slavery in East Anglia. It built up a strong sense of co-operation between Police, the church and vulnerable communities and an on-going commitment to help make people in vulnerable groups and the wide community aware of the issues, the realities and the suffering of people trapped in violence and inhumane treatment at the hands of their traffickers".
"It also raised the need to build trust with communities locally, provide support for victims and work collaboratively with the church in the countries of origin to make people aware of the suffering that victims of trafficking experience in the UK and that the streets are not paved with gold".
"We also affirmed the existing work that leaders of the local church communities in East Anglia are doing in engaging with vulnerable communities and supporting them".
Cecilia Taylor-Camara, Senior Policy Adviser for Migration Policy at CBCEW, said: "Over the last five years the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales has developed an appropriate response to pastoral care of vulnerable migrants in the face of increased demand for trafficked women, men and children through a human trafficking project with local, national and international dimensions culminating in the formation of the Santa Marta Group, an alliance of international police chiefs and bishops from around the world working together with civil society to end human trafficking."
Pictured are participants at the human trafficking round-table meeting in Peterborough.