By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, May 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Criminal gangs that use young people to sell drugs across Britain could recruit more out-of-school children as the country’s coronavirus lockdown eases, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said, also warning of a spike in online child sex abuse.
As lockdowns lift globally and several countries consider reopening borders, criminals will likely ramp up efforts to import drugs into Britain to replenish their depleted stocks, said Nikki Holland, the agency’s director of investigations.
Thousands of children in Britain are estimated to be used to carry drugs from cities to rural areas as part of the so-called county lines trade, and many are trapped by debt bondage or threats of kidnap, violence and rape, according to the NCA.
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.
With secondary schools shut for the foreseeable future, authorities and families must be vigilant against criminals who may seek to groom and recruit children remotely, Holland said.
“Criminals could increase their activities ten-fold as borders open and drugs come into Britain,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The potential is there (of more children being used to transport drugs) … we have to be alive to that.”
Britain’s lockdown – enforced at the end of March and eased slightly this week – has not stopped gangs trafficking drugs within the country or using children as runners, Holland added.
The NCA is working with the transport police to look out for young people travelling alone yet can no longer rely on teachers to report suspicious behaviour, she said, emphasising the role of parents in supervising their children – particularly online.
The agency said there had been a recent increase in online child sexual exploitation, from grooming to live-streams directed by abusers worldwide – known as cybersex trafficking.
The National Centre for Gang Research last week said gangs were changing tactics – with some dealers posing as key workers to avoid police detection and turning to social media to groom and recruit children as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.
“Young people can become ensnared in dangerous gang activity from their phones while their families have no idea and that is a worry,” said Simon Harding, director of the research centre.
Britain’s victims’ commissioner last month said the lockdown could trap more children in violent homes, increasing the risk of them entering the drug trade in the future.
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.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. 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 http://news.trust.org)