One third of all slavery victims forced into illegal drug trade are children, charity finds
- Drug gangs dressing children up as key workers to allow them to travel freely
- 30% of potential slavery victims reported last year were children, up from 23%
- The number of young people forced into all criminal activity almost doubled
Children now make up a third of all slavery victims forced into the illegal drug trade, a charity has found, a rise fuelled by the growth in ‘county lines’ trafficking where crime bosses use youngsters to avoid detection.
And campaigners report drug gangs have found new ways to operate under lockdown, including dressing children up as key workers to allow them to travel freely.
In 2019, 30 per cent of potential slavery victims reported to campaign group Unseen were children, says the charity, a leap up from 23 per cent in a year.
Unseen also found that the number of young people forced into all criminal activity almost doubled, with 16 per cent of cases involving a child in 2019, compared to nine per cent the year before.
Children now make up a third of all slavery victims forced into the illegal drug trade, a charity has found
Justine Currell, director of Unseen, said: ‘We are receiving more reports because there is more awareness of the helpline but also because we have seen a huge increase in the number of cases around ‘county lines’.
‘There were around 700 lines four years ago and probably around 2,000 now. The modus operandi of the criminals is to put all of the risk on to the young person. They give them instructions and a train ticket and hope they won’t get spotted by the British Transport Police.’
James Simmonds-Read, from The Children’s Society, said: ‘These figures chime with our experience. In lockdown, young people are less visible and we’ve seen exploiters changing up their tactics. We’ve seen them dressing children and vulnerable adults as key workers in order to hide them in plain sight.’
The Children’s Society has collected evidence of how crime bosses control child slaves. Some are filmed being sexually abused and the videos used to hold them to ransom. Others are given high-value drug loads and are then targeted with a fake robbery so they become indebted to their captors.
And Patrick Green, chief executive of anti-knife crime charity The Ben Kinsella Trust, warned: ‘The size of the problem is massive. Sixty thousand young people between ten and 17 identify as a gang member or have a relative who is a gang member.’
The number of under-17s referred to the National Referral Mechanism, a government-backed scheme to identify and support suspected victims of slavery, rose by 45 per cent in 2019, from 3,128 to 4,549. But James Simmonds-Read added: ‘This rise in numbers is just the tip of the iceberg.’