A new law could force public authorities in Scotland to notify the police about suspected victims of human trafficking or exploitation.
Ministers are seeking views on a so-called “duty to notify” policy which could provide a more accurate picture of the scale of trafficking north of the Border and allow for more effective policing.
Police Scotland made a public appeal in October last year to raise awareness of the issue, with many victims of exploitation often found working in plain sight.
One woman who was trafficked to Scotland and rescued during a police operation in Glasgow last year was forced into prostitution seven days a week, with her exploiters charging £120 per hour. She had been in the country for just three months.
The Scottish Government passed legislation in 2015 which introduced a single offence for all kinds of trafficking for the first time and consolidated existing laws on the matter.
New court orders came into effect two years later which meant the activities of convicted traffickers can also be restricted when released from jail.
But there is a belief that public bodies could still do more when it comes to reporting suspected cases to police.
At present, the only available data on the numbers of trafficking victims in Scotland is taken from the UK National Referral Mechanism (NRM). If victims do not consent to enter the NRM, no data is recorded.
Assistant Chief Constable Gillian MacDonald, Police Scotland’s lead officer on crime and protection, said victims of human trafficking were among the most vulnerable in communities.
“Some may never come to the attention of police or may choose, for their own reasons, not to engage with a police investigation,” she said.
“The introduction of a duty to notify is a positive step which will help us work with other public services to further develop our collective approach to protecting survivors.
“It will also assist in helping victims to escape the clutches of traffickers, as we work to make Scotland a hostile environment for this type of inhumane criminality.”
Launching the consultation, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “Human trafficking is a hidden and often complex crime meaning the true scale of the problem is unknown.
“Victims may be reluctant to acknowledge their own situation for reasons including fear of their traffickers, distrust in the authorities and a lack of awareness that there are agencies that can support them to safety and recovery.
“These plans will create a statutory duty on Scottish public authorities to ensure that the information obtained by Police Scotland is publicly available. This intelligence will ultimately help us to protect and support more vulnerable people.”
Malcolm Wright, chief executive of NHS Scotland, said: “Victims of human trafficking may be deeply traumatised and distrustful of authorities which may affect their ability to seek help, support and treatment for any injuries they have sustained as a result of their situation.
“All clinical and non-clinical staff across the NHS in Scotland can play a pivotal role in identifying potential victims of human trafficking and exploitation that may otherwise go unnoticed or remain invisible.
“Through our commitment to supporting the health and well-being of Scotland’s people we all have a responsibility to share information with the appropriate authorities to support safeguarding and the reporting of crime.”