UK police under fire over children trafficked into drug trade

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Police efforts to crack down on drug gangs that traffic children in Britain are being hampered by a lack of coordination and inconsistent treatment of victims, a watchdog said on Friday.

Thousands of children in Britain are estimated to be used by gangs to carry drugs from cities to rural areas, according to police who consider the crime a growing form of modern slavery.

Yet investigations into the drug trade are disjointed and often “less effective than they should be” due to limited police cooperation and competing priorities, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said.

The number of suspected British child slaves referred to the government in 2018 for support more than doubled to 1,421 from 676 in 2017, with many feared to be victims of the so-called county lines trade. Such data for last year was not available.

“Our inspection revealed that policing is currently too fragmented to best tackle county lines offending,” Phil Gormley, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, said in a statement.

Children caught with drugs who are arrested then released from policy custody often do not have ready access to support services, and in some cases are put on train journeys home unsupervised after their release, according to the report.

Responding to the watchdog, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for county lines Graham McNulty said there was room to improve, but the police could not solve the issue alone.

“Schools, health and social care services, charities and others have a critical role in ending this evil practice and we will continue to work closely with them,” McNulty said.

Britain’s interior ministry said it was investing 20 million pounds ($26 million) to tackle the crime, and that a national coordination centre established in 2018 had made at least 2,500 arrests and protected more than 3,000 vulnerable people.

Phil Brewer, the ex-head of the Metropolitan Police’s anti-slavery squad, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in October that police faced a challenge in trying to judge whether a child found dealing drugs should be treated as a suspect or a victim. [L5N26O4PA]

Gangs are luring some children into selling drugs by telling them they will not be punished if they say they were coerced, citing a defence intended for trafficking victims in Britain’s 2015 anti-slavery law, prosecutors told lawmakers last year.

The HMICFRS report said the government should launch a review into the legal defence and establish whether the legislation should be amended, a recommendation supported by Britain’s independent anti-slavery commissioner Sara Thornton.

“It is essential that police and prosecutors recognise county lines offenders who force their victims to carry drugs – often under the threat of extreme violence and intimidation – as perpetrators of modern slavery,” Thornton said in a statement.

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(Writing 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

Scapegoats to supply chains: Five aims for the anti-slavery fight in 2020

By Molly Millar

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – With a decade for the world to meet a United Nations target of ending modern slavery, experts say anti-slavery efforts must be guided by survivors, supported by law enforcement and kept at the top of the global activism agenda.

About 40 million people globally are estimated to be enslaved – in forced labour and forced marriages – in a trade worth an estimated $150 billion a year to human traffickers, according to the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO).

Here are five priorities for the global anti-slavery movement in 2020 as told to the Thomson Reuters Foundation by campaigners, civil servants, and migration and trade experts.


Survivors of modern slavery are increasingly being championed to inform and lead anti-trafficking efforts – from raising awareness to supporting victims and shaping policy.

“We must double our efforts to strengthen worker solidarity and survivor-led initiatives, and to open more platforms for meaningful worker participation in policy and practice,” said Lucila Granada, head of the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation.

More than 220 survivors have signed up to the Survivor Alliance since its launch in 2018 as an online network that provides a forum, expert contacts and consulting opportunities.

“In 2020, the anti-slavery movement needs to put their investment behind survivor leadership, create scholarships for education, and create liveable wage employment opportunities,” said Minh Dang, co-director of the Survivor Alliance.


From India to Britain and the United States, authorities and activists alike have voiced concerns about a lack of justice for trafficking victims despite fast-growing awareness of the issue.

Governments worldwide carried out 11,096 trafficking prosecutions in 2018 and won 7,481 convictions, according to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

Trafficking prosecutions have risen since 2012 – but hit a peak of 19,127 in 2015 – according to the compiled estimates.

Obstacles to securing convictions include persuading victims to speak out, tracking traffickers online and tracing their gains, and the complexity and length of cases, experts say.

“Slavery thrives when traffickers and slave-owners can brutally enslave people with little fear of any consequence,” said David Westlake, head of International Justice Mission UK.


Undocumented migrants are particularly vulnerable to slavery but are too often either demonised or overlooked, activists say.

“Migrant workers being scapegoated is just going to increase their level of vulnerability to human trafficking,” said Neha Misra, anti-slavery specialist at U.S.-based Solidarity Center.

More than 70 million people were uprooted last year by persecution and conflict in a record high, U.N. data shows, yet this figure does not include migrants seeking a better life.

Without the legal right to work or resettle, many migrants end up trapped in slavery and afraid to speak out or seek help.

The discovery of 39 dead Vietnamese in a truck near London in October spotlighted the illicit trade that sends the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on risky journeys to the West.

“We need to create laws and policies – globally and in Britain – that would allow people to migrate for work safely,” said Jakub Sobik, media manager at Anti-Slavery International.


From opinion polls showing limited public awareness to sensationalised images including handcuffs, chains and scars, modern-day slavery is widely misrepresented and misunderstood.

Traffickers rely far more psychological methods of coercion and the use of debts than on physical violence to trap their victims, found a recent study by Britain’s Nottingham University, which researches the global ill.

Modern slavery is too often seen mainly as a criminal issue, according to experts who say this diverts focus from cultural factors such as caste, globalisation and the rise of informal work, and attitudes towards and policies around migration.

“The idea that modern slavery is somewhere ‘out there’ perpetuated by evil criminals is only true for a very small percentage of people subject to egregious exploitation and abuse,” said Cindy Berman of the Ethical Trading Initiative.

“It’s in our midst,” said the head of modern slavery strategy at the organisation, which is a coalition of trade unions, companies and charities promoting workers’ rights.


With a host of political and environmental issues demanding the world’s attention, some advocates fear that slavery might fall down the agenda as a crime that mostly occurs out of sight.

While teenage activist Greta Thunberg – Time Magazine’s Person of the Year – has inspired public action on climate change, people must also be engaged and inspired to consider the human cost of services and products they buy, campaigners say.

“We must continue to mobilise government action, business engagement and public concern about the exploitation taking place in our local communities and global supply chains,” said Sara Thornton, Britain’s independent anti-slavery commissioner.

(Reporting by Molly Millar, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Belinda Goldsmith)

British Prime Minister to human traffickers: “We are coming after you.”

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Number 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions at parliament in London, Britain

By Temesghen Debesai

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed on Wednesday to put the UK at the forefront of global efforts to eradicate modern slavery, warning human traffickers: “We are coming after you.”

May called for a greater urgency in tackling a borderless crime affecting 46 million people worldwide and generating $150 billion in illegal profits a year.

“To the victims of modern slavery: We will not ignore your plight,” she said, speaking at London’s Westminster Abbey. “We will not turn away. We will not shut our eyes and pretend your suffering does not exist.

“We will work tirelessly, relentlessly pursuing the perpetrators of these appalling crimes so that victims of slavery can go free. And my message to these criminals is simply this: We are coming after you.”

Britain last year passed tough anti-slavery legislation introducing life sentences for traffickers and forcing companies to disclose what they are doing to make sure their supply chains are free from slavery.

Last month, May pledged to use 33.5 million pounds ($42 million) from the foreign aid budget to focus on combating slavery in countries which victims are known to be trafficked to Britain, where an estimated 11,700 people are enslaved.

“This is a global phenomenon that knows no geographical boundaries, crossing not just borders but over the internet,” she said.

“So we need a radical domestic and international approach to target every aspect of this despicable trade and strip the slave drivers of the profit they make out of human suffering by putting them behind bars.”

(Reporting by Temesghen Debesai; Writing by Timothy Large; Editing by Astrid Zweynert)