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British police raid drug gangs as COVID-19 fuels child trafficking fears

LONDON, Sept 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 1,000 people were arrested and dozens of suspected victims of modern slavery identified in a crackdown on the drug trade in Britain, police said on Friday, as concerns grow about a rise in child trafficking during the coronavirus pandemic.

Police said 69 possible trafficking victims were referred to government bodies for support following a series of raids this month to disrupt the so-called County Lines drug trade, by which criminal gangs move drugs from cities into rural areas.

The operation was the biggest of its kind to-date and led to the seizure of more than 1 million pounds ($1.28 million) worth of drugs and at least 500,000 pounds in cash, police said.

Thousands of children in Britain are estimated to be used to carry drugs into the countryside from urban areas, and many are trapped by debt bondage or threats of violence and rape, authorities say.

The number of suspected British child slaves referred to the government last year for support rose by two-thirds to 2,360, and most were believed to be victims of the drug trade.

“By targeting those at the centre of County Lines, we not only disrupt the criminal network, but we prevent other criminality including serious violence from occurring,” said Graham McNulty of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC).

“County Lines causes misery for communities and it is absolutely right we continue targeting those responsible,” the NPCC’s lead for County Lines said in a statement.

The number of children suspected to have been trafficked by drug gangs hit a record high during Britain’s coronavirus lockdown, which started in March and was eased in July.

About 377 such children were identified between April and June, up from 182 in the previous quarter, official data shows.

Crime experts and campaigners warned earlier this year that more children could fall prey to drug traffickers due to factors such as school closures and reduced contact with social services.

Researchers at the National Centre for Gang Research and Nottingham University said drug dealers were increasingly using social media to groom and recruit children from their homes.

Charities said children caught up in the trade must be identified as victims and protected rather than prosecuted.

“Too often, young people do not get the support they need, or are seen as having chosen to get involved in crime when they were manipulated and coerced,” said James Simmonds-Read, a national programme manager for The Children’s Society.

Police efforts to tackle drug gangs have been hampered by inconsistent treatment of victims and inadequate support for children caught with drugs, a police watchdog found in January.

The ex-head of the Metropolitan Police's anti-slavery squad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year that police faced a challenge in trying to judge whether a child found dealing drugs should be treated as a suspect or a victim. ($1 = 0.7841 pounds) (Writing by Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)

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