A gang of men who have allegedly been trafficking women around northern England to be raped for profit are being hunted by police after one of their victims came forward.
More than 150 officers launched coordinated morning raids in Stockton-on-Tees and Sheffield targeting men suspected of conspiracy to rape, sexual exploitation, trafficking, blackmail and drugs offences.
A spokesperson for Cleveland Police told The Independent the victims may have been groomed as part of the abuse.
“We’re not ruling anything out,” he added. “It looks like a number of young women from the Cleveland area were being exploited and used for sex, sometimes commercially and sometimes not.
“They were raped and trafficked to areas like Sheffield.”
Intelligence gathered so far suggests that an unknown number of young women have been trafficked within Cleveland and beyond the area for several months, being raped by multiple men after being driven to residential homes.
Police struck after a woman from Teesside came forward to say she had been trafficked to different parts of the country and abused.
Her evidence has identified 10 other potential victims and investigators expect the number to rise as the operation continues.
South Yorkshire Police – which was heavily criticised for its initial failure to respond to historic grooming in Rotherham – is working with officers in Cleveland on the case and the National Crime Agency has been informed.
Immigration enforcement officers joined police on Tuesday’s raids, which saw eight men arrested at seven homes in Stockton-on-Tees and another suspect arrested in Callow Mount, Sheffield.
A man whose door was smashed down in in Bowesfield Lane, Stockton, was questioned by police and immigration officers before being led away in handcuffs.
As he was taken past reporters and into a police van, he looked confused and said: “What's happened?”
Investigators could be seen checking a pair of trousers before carrying out a thorough search of the property.
Assistant Chief Constable Jason Harwin said Cleveland Police and its partners had acted strongly to “tackle those who seek to benefit from the suffering of others”.
“Human trafficking, the exploitation of the most vulnerable in our communities by the most ruthless, will not be accepted,” he added.
“Our message is clear, to those who are victims of this vile abuse; there is hope. We are on your side; we can and will help you. We are here for you, and we are stronger and more determined than your abusers.
“To those who traffic in human beings, in human lives, who seek to gain from fear or weakness, our message is unequivocal; we are strong, we are determined and we will bring you to justice.”
Barry Coppinger, Cleveland’s elected Police and Crime Commissioner, said: “Tackling human trafficking and sexual exploitation is not just about police officers, we must all come together as a community if we are to make a real difference.”
The case comes after a series of large-scale police operations against grooming gangs in the wake of revelations that victims in Rotherham were ignored or accused of criminal offences over years of abuse.
More than 700 potential victims were identified by Operation Sanctuary, which investigated grooming gangs operating in Northumberland and Tyne and Weir – bordering Cleveland.
Officials warned at the time that there was “every likelihood this is happening in every town and city across the country”, urging police and local councils to actively search for grooming activity.
More than a dozen men have been jailed for their part in the Newcastle-based ring, and groups have been prosecuted for sexual exploitation in Oxford, Bradford and Rochdale.
Last month, The Independent revealed that a new suspected grooming gang had been uncovered in London, with at least four girls aged between 13 and 15 reporting rape.
Police said a criminal gang was operating out of a McDonald’s in Stratford, targeting victims before taking them to different locations where they were sexually assaulted.
Drugs and alcohol are frequently used by grooming gangs to incapacitate girls or coerce them into sex, with the criminality later discouraging victims from going to police.
There are several methods of grooming, with the best-known “boyfriend” model seeing an abusive relationship used to force victims into sex with others.
Children can also be trafficked, befriended online or – in the so-called “party model” – targeted by groups of men who lure them to gatherings with offers of drinks, drugs, money and car rides.
Cleveland Police is urging victims to get in contact, where they will be put in touch with specially trained officers and be given access to a support network.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Cleveland Police on 101 or charities such as the Teesside Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC).