By Sonia Elks
LONDON, May 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dozens of suspected slaves have been rescued in a week-long crackdown on illegal drug gangs across Britain that uncovered hundreds of vulnerable children, officials said on Tuesday.
More than 500 people were arrested in raids that saw 312,649 pounds ($397,000) in cash, 175,000 pounds worth of cocaine, as well as significant quantities of crack cocaine and heroin seized in a major coordinated police action.
"We know that criminal networks use high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse to ensure compliance from the vulnerable people they employ to do the day-to-day drug supply activity," said Nikki Holland from the National Crime Agency (NCA).
"There are now fewer drugs on the streets, more vulnerable people safeguarded and the public can be reassured that collectively we are committed to tackling serious and organised crime offenders."
Thousands of children in Britain, some as young as 12, are thought to be used by so-called "county lines" gangs to carry drugs from cities to be sold in rural areas.
Some victims are initially groomed with flattery and gifts, and many are trapped in the trade by debt bondage or threats of kidnap, violence and rape, the NCA has said.
More than 30 suspected slaves were offered help under the government's National Referral Mechanism and 519 adults and 364 children at risk of exploitation by drug gangs were protected, for example via court orders, in this week's crackdown.
A total of 500 men and 86 women were arrested as suspects. Nearly 50 weapons were found including guns, swords, machetes, an axe, knives, samurai swords, and a crossbow.
"This is clearly a big problem and it's good that it has started to be taken seriously," Jakub Sobik from Anti-Slavery International told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He said more work needed to be done to ensure that young people snared by drug gangs were consistently treated as victims and not criminals.
"Most cases start with nice things like gifts and the promise of a glamorous life but it very quickly turns into a nightmare that children simply can't get out of because their lives start to be controlled by criminal gangs," he said.
Gangs often tell children that they will not be punished if they say they were coerced, citing a legal defense in the Modern Slavery Act meant to protect victims of human trafficking who are forced to commit crimes, police have said.
($1 = 0.7875 pounds) (Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Katy Migiro. 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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