By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Aug 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain is ramping up efforts to tackle sex trafficking of girls and gangs' use of children as drug mules amid concerns that cases uncovered by police are just "the tip of the iceberg" with modern slavery ever-evolving, experts said on Wednesday.
Britain this week announced a 2 million pound ($2.6 million) scheme to help authorities stop at risk children falling into the grip of traffickers and gangs who rape them and force them to move drugs over 'county lines' from cities to rural areas.
"They are often at risk of multiple threats outside of their family lives, such as child sexual exploitation, gangs and county lines," children's minister Nadhim Zahawi said in a statement, referring to rising child drug trafficking.
Britain has been rocked by a series of child sex trafficking and abuse cases over the past few years, with hundreds of girls exploited by large gangs - often consisting of mainly Asian men.
"The cases in the public domain are the tip of the iceberg," said Sarah Champion, member of parliament for Rotherham, a northern English town hit by revelations in 2014 that hundreds of children were sexually abused by gangs over a 16-year-period.
"As a country we have to focus on prevention, not just sit back and be surprised once a child is abused," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that many child victims are not believed when they speak out or report crimes against them.
In Britain, 2,118 children suspected to have been trafficked - mostly trapped in sexual exploitation, domestic servitude or forced labour - were referred to the government last year, up 66 percent on 2016 and marking the highest annual number on record.
The scheme, to be launched in 2019, will train professionals to respond to such threats, and focus on protecting children who go missing from home or care and end up as prey for gangs.
"The rate of trafficked children going missing from local authority care and placements is currently unacceptable," said Kate Garbers, managing director of anti-slavery charity Unseen.
Britain must ensure the new national unit is equipped to work on all forms of exploitation affecting children - not just drug trafficking - and that local authorities are well trained and funded, according to Catherine Baker of charity ECPAT UK.
Hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain last month said it would review its landmark 2015 law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, help victims, or drive companies to root out forced labour.
Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern-day slaves, Australian human rights group Walk Free said last month - a figure about 10 times higher than a 2013 government estimate. ($1 = 0.7757 pounds) (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))
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.