A steep rise in the number of vulnerable children being lured into dealing drugs as part of the so-called county lines crisis has led to a doubling of modern slavery cases involving UK minors in Britain.
Data from the National Crime Agency (NCA) showed the number of modern slavery cases involving UK children rose from 676 in 2017 to 1,421 in 2018.
The increase comes amid concern around county lines gangs who use children to traffic drugs from inner-city areas to provincial towns, where they are used to sell drugs. Nearly two-thirds of the 2018 cases, 987, were linked to labour exploitation, including by county lines and other criminal gangs.
The annual figures come from the number of cases submitted under the national referral mechanism (NRM), used to identify instances of modern slavery. Across all nationalities, the number increased by 48%, from 2,118 in 2017 to 3,137 in 2018.
The NCA deputy director, Roy McComb, said: “The increase is undoubtedly the result of greater awareness, understanding and reporting of modern slavery and that is something to be welcomed.
“However, the more we look, the more we find, and it is likely these figures represent only a snapshot of the true scale of slavery and trafficking in the UK. Of particular concern is the increase in referrals made for county lines-type exploitation. These are often vulnerable individuals – often children – who are exploited by criminal gangs for the purposes of drug trafficking.”
A report on the latest data by the NCA said: “This increase is due, in the majority, to a continued increase in the recorded NRM referrals related to the county lines criminal business model of exploiting vulnerable individuals and other forms of criminal labour exploitation.”
An estimated 1,500 county lines networks operate in the UK, with every police force affected. They have been held up by police chiefs as a key driver behind the rise in violent crime in recent years.
In its annual assessment of the county lines trade, the NCA said phone numbers identified were linked to about 1,000 branded networks, with a single line capable of making £800,000 profits in a year.
The modern slavery figures showed that 6,993 potential victims were identified in 2018, up from 5,142 in 2017. The most common nationalities were British, Albanian and Vietnamese, although people from 130 countries were victims. For 2018, 1,625 cases involving UK victims were identified, compared with 819 the previous year.
The causes of the slavery included labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and organ harvesting. Two adults and four children were identified as potential victims of organ harvesting, although the NCA said no procedures had occurred.
Among the 6,993 referrals, 52 were referred to police in Northern Ireland, 228 to Police Scotland, 251 to Welsh forces and the remaining 6,462 to English forces.
“Our understanding of the threat is much greater than it was a few years ago, and modern slavery remains a high priority for law enforcement, with around 1,500 criminal investigations currently live in the UK,” McComb said.
He added: “We cannot stop modern slavery alone, we need support and assistance from across the public and private sectors, NGOs and most of all the public themselves.”
An NSPCC spokesman said: “Sadly, our child trafficking team knows only too well that children continue to be smuggled into the UK as if they were objects and not humans.
“These children are arguably some of the most vulnerable in society, with many smuggled in and forced to be sex slaves, carry out crime, or become domestic servants.
“We’ve worked on more than 2,000 child trafficking cases but we know this is but a fraction of the problem. More must be done to help the public know how to spot a trafficked child, and give them the confidence to report their concerns.”