By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Oct 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British police and prosecutors must get better at dealing with a rising number of children caught selling drugs and recognise that they might be victims of modern-day slavery rather than criminal suspects, according to a former police chief.
Thousands of children in Britain are estimated to be used by gangs to carry drugs from cities to rural areas, and are increasingly being coerced at a younger age, said Phil Brewer, the ex-head of the Metropolitan Police's anti-slavery squad.
Yet the authorities face a "really difficult" task in trying to judge whether a young person found dealing drugs should be treated as a suspect or a victim, said Brewer, who retired from the police last month after five years in charge of the unit.
Lawyers have raised concerns that many children are prosecuted on drug charges in spite of evidence suggesting they were compelled to commit crimes and a legal defence protecting such defendants under the landmark 2015 Modern Slavery Act.
"There needs to be a bigger emphasis on encouraging young people to disclose what has happened to them," Brewer said, explaining how many children are either too scared to speak out, or do not see themselves as victims of grooming or exploitation.
"They must feel safe in the knowledge that they can give the names of those people that have exploited them ... and trust that the authorities will do something about it," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of Anti-Slavery Day on Oct. 18.
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 so-called "county lines" drug trade.
Government data on possible victims of modern slavery does not break down how many children are trafficked by drug gangs, but police and charities believe the number is rapidly rising.
Britain this month pledged 20 million pounds ($25 million) to boost efforts to disrupt the trade - from technology to track cars suspected of being used by drug gangs to putting more officers at railway stations seen as key transit hubs.
Gangs are luring some children into selling drugs by telling them they will not be punished if they say they were coerced, citing a legal defence intended for trafficking victims, police and prosecutors told lawmakers earlier this year.
While police forces have got better recently at realising "that the suspect in front of them might be a victim", there is still cause for concern and room for improvement, Brewer said.
"For example, if a young person does a 'no comment' interview and doesn't disclose who is responsible for exploiting them ... these are elements that might be seen as an admission of guilt."
"Children become criminalised sometimes because they don't talk until the 11th hour, and the system doesn't respond well," said Brewer, who this week won a Human Trafficking Foundation award for his anti-slavery efforts at the Metropolitan Police.
The crime also presents a challenge for smaller police forces in rural Britain who are not accustomed to young people arriving from cities carrying drugs, he added, calling for better cooperation between officers across different regions.
Yet Brewer said he was confident that the growing use of the Modern Slavery Act to prosecute people who force children to sell drugs would act as a deterrent – due to the risk of heavier prison sentences and stigma of being labelled as a trafficker.
The biggest obstacle to securing justice may be the mindset of many children caught up in the crime, said the former cop, who is now an advisor for anti-slavery group Stop the Traffik.
A former gang leader - who once recruited teenagers as drug runners - told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year that it was "too easy" for criminals to groom children into the drug trade with the promise of quick cash and notoriety.
"Many children consider it (selling drugs) to be a lifestyle choice ... but as a professional looking at it from the outside, you see that is not a choice at all but the path they've been sent down by those intent on exploiting them," Brewer said.
"They end up committing crime based on misjudged loyalties."
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith, Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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