POLICE have warned that homeless people can be exploited through modern slavery.

The Sussex force launched a major operation on Monday to help victims.

It said they could be illegal immigrants, they could be English, the homeless, who can often be exploited in the construction industry, and people such as fruit packers.

During the operation, called Project Discovery, Sussex Police officers stopped several vans on a major trunk route, the southbound A21 at Johns Cross north of Hastings.

They were assisted by representatives from the Surrey and Sussex Road Policing Unit, the Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority, King’s Church anti-trafficking team and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency.

They talked to 12 men, including six drivers, in an attempt to find out whether they were “involved in any exploitative work at construction sites in the area”.

Detective Constable Amanda Snashall said: “Our enquiries in East Sussex and elsewhere have suggested that many such men may be financially exploited and living in poor conditions, working in the agricultural or construction sectors, with – for example – no access to a National Insurance number.

“Some may have no access to any identity document at all.

“Our activity today did not result in identification of any victims or offenders but it produced useful intelligence and is part of our long-term operation to locate and offer support to any such victims, as well as identifying anyone involved in exploitation.”

Sussex Police have worked with other agencies and charities to carry out the project.

Natalie Williams from King’s Church, one of the organisations helping, said: “It is shocking that modern slavery is taking place in our communities and neighbourhoods, but it is.

“We need organisations such as the police and the church, and others in partnerships such as this, so that our combined work can see perpetrators brought to justice and the survivors can be helped to rebuild their lives.”

Katy Bourne, Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, attended the operation and praised the team for their work.

She said: “Modern slavery and exploitation is often a hidden crime and for that reason, we don’t always know the true extent of it, even though it is happening all around us.

“It was great to see this team in action today, gathering vital intelligence and demonstrating to the public that modern slavery will not be tolerated in Sussex.”