Tenfold surge in number of child slavery probes as police warn there are ‘just too many predators out there’
- Police say that one in three probes into modern slavery now concern children
- About a third exploited by gangs had been reported missing to police before
- Experts say the rise has been fuelled by the growth of the county lines menace
The number of child slavery investigations in the UK has jumped nearly tenfold in just two years, figures reveal today.
Police chiefs warn there are now ‘just too many predators out there’.
One in three probes into modern slavery now concern children after an explosion in ‘county lines’ drugs gangs preying on youngsters, their report says.
About a third of those victims exploited by gangs had been reported missing to police before, analysis shows.
The shocking figures, from the Modern Slavery Police Transformation Programme’s annual report, show there were 475 police operations into child slavery in the UK last month, compared with 53 in April 2017.
One in three probes into modern slavery now concern children after an explosion in ‘county lines’ drugs gangs preying on youngsters (file photo)
Experts say the rise has been fuelled by the growth of the county lines menace, whereby gangs use children and vulnerable adults to sell drugs, carrying them across county boundaries.
The report warned that British minors being exploited by drugs gangs were the fastest growing group of victims reported to the National Referral Mechanism, which assesses cases of modern slavery.
In the past five years, the number of youngsters being referred has rocketed by more than 2,000 per cent from just 63 cases in 2013.
Yesterday Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, who leads the National Police Chiefs’ Council on modern slavery, described the number of children being targeted as ‘staggering’, adding: ‘Our children are being criminally and sexually exploited in a way we did not comprehend before.’
The number of modern slavery cases involving children in the UK has more than doubled from 676 in 2017 to 1,421 last year.
An analysis of police records shows that of the 75,000 children reported missing to forces in 2017-2018, nearly 5,000 of the youngsters who were later found had been exploited in some way. But according to Mr Sawyer, the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, this is the tip of the iceberg.
He said: ‘There are just too many predators out there. There are predators online and there are predators in the digital space and in the physical space and sadly even in institutions.’
The report warned that British minors being exploited by drugs gangs were the fastest growing group of victims reported to the National Referral Mechanism (file photo)
He said those most at risk of being recruited by gangs were teenagers being passed between care homes or dumped in unregulated homes by local authorities and pupils excluded from mainstream schools.
‘The highest-risk cohorts will be those who come from either a family home or a care system where they are not seen as a child, as being vulnerable in their own right, and are instead seen as a number or an inconvenience,’ he said. ‘We have stopped treating children as children.’
Record numbers of criminals are now being jailed for trafficking and slavery, with 399 prosecuted last year.
But Mr Sawyer said prosecutions will not solve the problem and parents have a responsibility to warn their children about the dangers they face.
‘We are more concerned about putting a seatbelt on them in the back of a car than actually giving them the tools they need to exist in a digital space where they are exploited,’ he said.
Mr Sawyer said the reduction in the number of youth clubs and drop-in centres had left children more vulnerable.
He said: ‘The places where young people can go to be safe – youth groups and drop-in centres – unfortunately austerity has reduced those.’
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