By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Nov 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Targeting gangs in Britain who groom children to carry drugs with tough anti-trafficking laws and the threat of life in prison sends a strong message to criminals who enslave others, the country's anti-slavery tsar and police said on Tuesday.
Thousands of children - some as young as 12 - are estimated to be used by gangs to carry drugs between cities and rural areas in Britain, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).
Police forces have seen a rise in the exploitation of and violence towards children, and have identified more than 700 criminal operations in the so-called 'county lines' drug trade, said Vince O'Brien of the NCA, which is dubbed Britain's FBI.
By using Britain's landmark Modern Slavery Act for the first time to charge alleged drug dealers in two upcoming criminal trials, the police and prosecutors hope to tackle the use of children as drug runners with the threat of harsher sentences.
"This is an important step, to send out a message to those exploiting and trafficking vulnerable people, including children ... that we can bring the full force of the law against them," said O'Brien, who heads the NCA's drug operations.
Britain is regarded as a leader in global efforts to combat slavery. The 2015 law introduced life sentences for traffickers, better protection for people at risk of being enslaved, and made businesses check their supply chains for forced labour.
"Police and prosecutors must consider using this legislation to its full, so that these ruthless criminals are brought to justice for what they are – child traffickers," said Kevin Hyland, Britain's Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
Using Britain's anti-slavery laws to prosecute criminals who exploit children to traffic drugs may also prompt a shift away from punishing the young mules for drug offences, said Nazir Afzal, a former Chief Crown Prosecutor for northwest England.
"It starts out with money, but then these children - mainly young boys - become slaves to their masters," said Afzal, who now advises the government and trains lawyers and judges.
"There is growing recognition recently that they are victims of slavery, having been groomed, blackmailed and threatened with violence," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure could be in the tens of thousands with slavery operations on the rise.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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