Eight people have been arrested after a series of warrants were carried out in Plymouth and Cornwall as part of a major investigation into human trafficking and modern slavery.

Search warrants were executed on Tuesday, September 16, under the Immigration and Asylum Act, at five properties in Plymouth and one address in Bodmin.

Police arrested eight people, made up of five women, aged between 26 and 34, and three men, aged between 35 and 37, on suspicion of trafficking people into the UK for the purpose of labour exploitation and on suspicion of money laundering. They remain in custody in Plymouth.

Eight men, all suspected victims of human trafficking and Czech nationals, were recovered to safety and have been taken to a reception centre.

Thirteen children, thought to be linked to the suspects, were found at the addresses by police and social services and have now been taken to a place of safety.

The simultaneous raids were part of Operation Triage, the largest operation of its kind carried out by Devon and Cornwall Police and partner agencies into adult labour exploitation.

It began in March 2014 following allegations made to police by a man from the Czech Republic who reported he had been subject to adult labour exploitation in Plymouth.

The operation has involved more than 200 staff from police, Plymouth City Council, the National Crime Agency, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, The British Red Cross, The Salvation Army and the Department for Work and Pensions.

Chief Superintendent Andy Boulting, commander of Plymouth Police, said: “This is the largest operation of its kind run by Devon and Cornwall Police and a first for Plymouth. It has been a complex and difficult investigation, and police have worked closely with a range of partner agencies to share information, expertise and intelligence.

“The scale of this operation demonstrates that we are committed to taking positive action to end exploitation and trafficking of workers in the Plymouth area as well as targeting those who seek to gain from others’ suffering.

“There is a significant amount of work still to do with this inquiry but we are focused on ensuring victims of suspected trafficking are protected and cared for as a matter of priority.”

Detective Superintendent Jim Colwell, the force lead for modern slavery, said: “Modern slavery is a growing issue for all police forces in the UK and national figures point to an increasing reports of victimisation with the areas of forced labour, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation. Victims are promised a better life in the UK with a good job but often end up in unacceptable living conditions, with little or no wages, and their lives being controlled by someone else.

“We do not believe such criminality is widespread in Plymouth or across Devon and Cornwall. However the scale of the problem is likely to be much bigger than we currently perceive as it is a type of crime that is very well hidden.

“Often victims are reluctant to engage with law enforcement agencies or often do not perceive themselves to actually be victims of exploitation. As police we have a duty to protect any victim of exploitation and the safety of vulnerable people remains paramount.

“Yesterday we had eight suspected victims living under oppression in Plymouth and Cornwall and now they are in a place of safety. We would encourage any victim of forced labour or exploitation of any kind, and anyone who may be aware of, or suspect such activity, to come forward to police and report offences with confidence, safe in the knowledge that any allegations will be taken very seriously by police.”

Carole Burgoyne, director of people for Plymouth City Council, said: “This day of action sends out a clear message that Plymouth will not tolerate illegal human trafficking, and agencies are working together to tackle this issue.

“In total 13 children have been recovered from the properties and we are making arrangements to safeguard their well being including placing them in care in necessary.

“We have worked closely with police and our top priority is the safeguarding of the vulnerable people involved, in particular the potential victims who have been implicated in this terrible situation through no fault of their own.

“We are working with the police, Red Cross, Plymouth and Devon Racial Equality Council, health service and other local and national agencies to ensure the people affected receive the support they need, and to minimise the impact on the local community.

“I would also like to reassure people that this is a highly unusual case for Plymouth and it is the first time we have dealt with this particular situation. All agencies are, however, working to tackle this issue and we are drawing on the expertise of organisations such as the Red Cross who are experienced in dealing with such issues.”

The Red Cross and The Salvation Army will provide care for the suspected victims at a reception centre while police enquiries continue.

Paul Broadbent, Chief Executive of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), added: “The alleged victims rescued in this case were brought to the UK on the promise of a good life and well-paid work. Instead such people find themselves living in squalid conditions and earning a pittance under threats of violence if they failed to comply. Quite simply, modern-day slaves.

“The core aim of the GLA is to work in partnership to protect vulnerable workers and we will continue to use all ethical and lawful means to relentlessly pursue criminals who seek to exploit other human beings.”

Anyone who has been affected by issues related to human trafficking in Plymouth or has any information can call police on 101 or the modern slavery helpline on 0800 0121 700. You can also visit www.modernslavery.co.uk for advice, support and to report offences.