By Lin Taylor
LONDON, July 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British schoolchildren as young as seven are being exploited by criminal gangs and forced to deal drugs, with some duped into debt bondage, researchers said on Friday.
Thousands of children in Britain - most aged between 15 and 17 - are being used by so-called county lines gangs to carry drugs from cities to be sold in rural areas, according to research by The Children's Society, a charity.
Even younger victims are recruited by gangs on social media as well as in schools, foster homes and homeless shelters, police and children's charities say.
"Children are being cynically exploited with the promise of money, drugs, status and affection," said Nick Roseveare, head of The Children's Society, in a statement.
"They're being controlled using threats, violence and sexual abuse, leaving them traumatised and living in fear."
Through Freedom of Information requests to police and local authorities, as well as interviews with experts supporting children who have been exploited, the charity found that students as young as seven were being targeted.
Gangs often tell children they will not be punished if they tell police they were coerced, citing a legal defence in the Modern Slavery Act meant to protect victims of human trafficking who are forced to commit crimes.
Some victims are initially groomed with flattery and gifts, and many suffer threats of kidnap, violence and rape, according to Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA).
The report said gangs were also trapping children by giving them an item of value to look after then faking its theft and telling them they had to work to repay the debt.
The number of suspected British child slaves referred to the government last year for support more than doubled to 1,421 - from 676 in 2017 - amid rising concern from police about the growing county lines drug trade.
About two-thirds of these cases - 987 - were linked to labour exploitation and believed to be drug trafficking, according to the annual NCA report on modern slavery referrals to the government.
"Tackling county lines needs a whole system approach," the NCA said in its response.
"This means leaders in health and social care, education, and the third sector working collaboratively with law enforcement to stop young people being drawn in to county lines."
About 7,000 possible slavery victims were uncovered in Britain last year - up a third on 2017 - as exclusively revealed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation last month.
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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