Twenty-one potential human trafficking victims at risk of labour exploitation have been rescued by police during two operations in Armagh and Belfast.
It is believed those rescued are eastern Europeans working under forced labour in the agricultural sector.
They were men and women aged between 18 and 45 and are being cared for by Migrant Help and Women’s Aid.
They will be assessed for referral to the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which is run by the National Crime Agency.
Officers searched premises in Newtownhamilton last Friday and spent a number of days working with partner agencies to identify the potential victims.
Detective Chief Inspector Douglas Grant, from Serious Crime Branch, said: “In terms of the number of potential victims, this is one of the largest operations we have mounted in the past year.
“Due to the numbers involved, and the challenges posed by language issues, it will take some time to form a clear picture of what exactly has taken place.
“But we are following a number of definite lines of enquiry and our investigation will continue for some time.”
He added: “Police would urge employers in every sector of business to ensure they are operating within the law in terms of accessing labour and offering employees appropriate terms and conditions.
In a separate investigation in greater Belfast, another five potential victims of trafficking were identified and are being looked after.
DCI Grant said: “This is an entirely separate investigation but there are another five potential victims who need assistance and protection.
“Our enquiries are at an early stage in relation to this development but it is important to stress to everyone in our community that police will act, with partners, to protect potential victims and apprehend those individuals or groups who would seek to take advantage of their circumstances for whatever reason.
Justice Minister David Ford has welcomed the rescue.
“Forced labour is a form of modern day slavery and there is no place for it in any society,” he said.
“I welcome the operation to assist these men and women who may have been cruelly exploited for the financial gain of others.
“I also welcome the unrelated police action, which has led to another five potential victims of human trafficking being identified in Belfast.
“I know that the vast majority of employers are legitimate, but those who seek to use victims of trafficking can expect to feel the full weight of the law.”
Detectives from the PSNI Human Trafficking Unit were working with others in HM Revenue and Customs, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Health and Safety Executive and local police.