When most people think about what modern-day slavery looks like in the UK – if they do at all – they probably don't imagine British children to be the victims. However, according to new figures, children are increasingly being sexually exploited and forced to sell drugs.
The data, from the National Crime Agency, also points to a record number of potential victims of modern slavery and trafficking in the UK, with 5,145 people referred to the authorities last year – an increase of more than a third on 2016 (3,804) and the highest number ever recorded since the data was first collected in 2009.
2017 was also the first time British citizens accounted for the highest number of recorded victims, with 819 cases reported compared to 326 in 2016. Victims from Albania and Vietnam were the second and third most commonly reported in the UK.
The NCA said this trend is caused by a 66% rise in the number of children being used to transport hard drugs in the UK, including heroin and crack cocaine, from inner cities to rural and coastal areas, the BBC reported.
Gangs involved in drug supply reportedly seek out vulnerable children, who are enticed by the money on offer, in a process known as "county lines". Victims are likely to have mental health problems, be drug users themselves, or come from troubled backgrounds.
Children under 18 are most often sought out because gangs believe they are less likely to draw attention to themselves and will receive lenient sentences if caught. Last year, the youth charity Safer London estimated that as many as 4,000 teenagers from the capital alone were being exploited in this way.
Will Kerr, director of the NCA, called the problem "an evolving threat". “The criminals involved in these types of exploitation are going into online spaces, particularly adult services website, to enable their criminality," he said, adding that there had also been a rise in the number of susceptible young people being sexually exploited.
While the NCA said the increase in the number of trafficking and slavery victims is likely caused by increased awareness and better reporting, the figures are almost certainly an underestimation of the "true scale" of the problem.
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