British Transport Police has revealed that more than 1,000 people have been arrested along the railway network in a crackdown to help protect children who are exploited by organised gangs.
Since December 2019, a total of 1,002 people have been arrested by the British Transport Police’s County Lines Taskforce, which has led to charges on offences including modern slavery crimes.
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Officers are deployed across the railway network in England, Wales and Scotland in a crackdown on criminals who often use “vulnerable” children to transport drugs and cash, BTP County Lines Taskforce lead Detective Superintendent Gareth Williams said.
The Children’s Society says that criminals have adapted their methods to continue exploiting children under lockdown at a time when they may be feeling lonely, worried about family finances and have little respite from challenges or dangers at home.
A 13-year-old boy was carrying £1,500 in cash when he was stopped in Kent in September, making him the youngest person to have been arrested by the taskforce.
Officers have secured 15 modern slavery charges, seized £335,000 from individual stops and made 522 drug seizures since the taskforce was set up in December 2019.
Detective Superintendent Williams said: “On a weekly basis we run joint operations at stations and on board trains with local forces across England, Scotland and Wales – putting pressure on these criminals and disrupting County Lines activity wherever it occurs.
“One of our priorities as a taskforce is to safeguard the vulnerable children and adults exploited by County Lines organised criminals to get them out of harm’s way and away from crime.”
The children are often victims of exploitation who have at first been lured by promises of money and status, only to then be threatened or assaulted to ensure they cannot leave the control of the criminals.
They are then sent out to move sums ranging from £1,000 to £5,000 and Class A drugs long distances away, the police said.
The Children’s Society, with the support of the National Police Chiefs Council and forces including British Transport Police, is launching a national Look Closer Awareness Week.
The campaign, which runs next week, encourages rail staff and the public to look out for signs that a child may be at risk of being groomed and exploited to report their fears.
James Simmonds-Read, of The Children’s Society, said that children may be “particularly” vulnerable to offers of cash, gifts, food, friendship and status by perpetrators right now – but this grooming later turns into coercion as criminals deploy “terrifying threats and violence”.
He said: “Under lockdown, these young people and the risks they face are often less visible to professionals like teachers and social workers.
“That’s why we are encouraging everyone who sees children in their daily lives to look out for signs of exploitation and report any concerns to police so these young people can be identified and offered the help they desperately need.”
The taskforce officers, including a plain-clothes unit who were deployed at Bedford Station this week, are looking for warning signs to spot victims.
The youngsters could end up in the drugs or sex trade or as trafficked children, according to The Children’s Society.
Anyone who feels they have spotted something of concern can report it to the police on 101. If on a train they can text the British Transport Police on 61016 or dial 999 if there is an immediate risk to a child.
Anyone who wants to remain anonymous can go contact Crimestoppers online or call the helpline on 0800 555111.
Parents, carers or professionals who are looking for advice are asked to call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000.
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