By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Jan 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Criminal gangs that sell drugs across Britain are trafficking more children - some as young as 11 - to transport their wares with the illicit trade expanding, police bosses said on Tuesday.
Victims of the so-called "county lines" drug trade are getting younger as gangs target children via social media or across schools, foster homes and homeless shelters, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).
Thousands of children in Britain are estimated to be used to carry drugs from cities to rural areas - most aged between 15 and 17 - and many are trapped in the growing trade by debt bondage or threats of kidnap, violence and rape, the NCA said.
The number of phone numbers linked to the county lines trade and identified by police has more than tripled over the past year to at least 2,000 - indicating the scale of the problem, according to the NCA's fourth annual report on the issue.
"Criminal networks use high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse to ensure compliance from the vulnerable people they employ to do the day-to-day drug supply activity," Nikki Holland, head of investigations at the NCA, said in a statement.
"What we will continue to do with our law enforcement partners is disrupt their activity and take away their assets."
Holland told a committee of lawmakers that people involved in transporting drugs were getting younger and more vulnerable.
Many young people recruited by gangs do not see themselves as victims, but are flattered by the attention and gifts they receive, so are less likely to speak to police, the NCA said.
An ex-gang leader who once recruited teens as drug mules told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year it was "too easy" to groom children with promises of cash and notoriety.
In Britain, 2,118 children suspected to have been trafficked were referred to the government in 2017, up 66 percent on 2016 and the highest annual number on record. About a third were British and many were used as drug runners, officials have said.
More than 600 people were arrested and 1,000 rescued - about two-thirds of them being children - last week in a nationwide crackdown on drug gangs, the NCA also announced on Tuesday.
Britain last year launched a 2 million pound ($2.6 million) scheme to help protect children from sex and drug trafficking.
"Targeting the root causes of violent crime and intervening early ... can help prevent young people being led down a dangerous path," said Britain's crime minister Victoria Atkins.
Gangs are luring some children into selling drugs by telling them they will not be punished if they say they were coerced, citing a legal defence intended for trafficking victims, police and prosecutors told lawmakers earlier this month.
Despite being hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain is reviewing its landmark 2015 legislation amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive big businesses to stop forced labour, or support victims.
($1 = 0.7612 pounds)
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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