British police have broken open a complex trafficking network run from Romania which uses children to rake in hundreds of thousands of pounds through street crime and benefit fraud.
In a series of dawn raids on properties in Ilford, east London, officers found 103 children crammed into just 16 addresses. The raid, codenamed Operation Norman, is thought to be one of the largest ever conducted against Roma smuggling networks in Britain.
Last night 28 children aged between three and 17 were taken into protective police custody. Six of the 52 adults living at the properties have been arrested although police expect that number to rise in the coming days.
According to the Metropolitan Police many Roma children are trafficked to the UK and forced to beg and steal on the streets by their handlers who send the bulk of the money back to a town in Romania where traffickers have built themselves palatial houses on the proceeds. The children are also used to bolster fraudulent benefit claims to bring in extra tax credits and child support.
The raids were conducted with help from the Romanian authorities who have been tracking smuggling networks operating out Tanderai, a town 80 miles to the east of Bucharest which has a large Roma population.
Despite the continued harsh economic difficulties faced in Romania, a large number of luxurious houses have sprung up in recent years, many of which have brand new cars with British number plates on their driveways.
Six of the 28 children taken into protective custody were found at one single address. One of the children, a three year-old boy, was taken to hospital with bruising and facial injuries. Three adults at that address were arrested on suspicion of assault and neglect of a child.
Child protection experts will now be tasked with evaluating each child to see whether they have been trafficked and exploited by trafficking networks.
The arrests are a significant move by Operation Golf, a 14 officer-strong unit within the Metropolitan Police specifically tasked with dismantling child trafficking gangs who use children to steal huge amounts of cash.
Operation Golf is part funded with a £1m grant from the EU disposal and was launched shortly after Romania’s accession to the EU when police forces noticed a significant increase in street crime by Romanian children on the streets of London. More than 1,000 offences were recorded in the first six months of 2007, compared with 168 in the whole of 2006.
Yesterday’s raids echoed a similar blitz on child trafficking networks that was launched by the Operation Golf unit two years ago where officers found a string of properties crammed with children. Four people were subsequently jailed at Reading crown court for child trafficking in the first conviction under the Immigration Act 2004.
Speaking about the raids, Chief Inspector Colin Carswell, of Operation Golf, described how children are routinely exploited by both gangs and sometimes their own parents.
"Many parents are told by the gang they can earn money if they give up their child to be taken aboard,” he explained. “The gangs loan them money to pay for the trafficking. This is at an extremely high interest rate, and it can take many years to pay off gangs, with increasing numbers of the children and even entire families becoming entrapped as debt slaves. Often the families are forced to move across the UK and Europe and into controlling fresh victims."
Superintendent Bernie Gravett, who heads Operation Golf, added that his unit had been working closely with Romanian authorities in and around the Tandarei area.
"The most visible aspects of the profits being sent back to Romania are the building of large houses, the purchase of expensive vehicles and the possession of large amounts of disposable cash,” he said.
“In April this year we assisted the Romanian authorities to arrest twenty-six individuals from the organised criminal network from Tandarei, south east Romania. They are currently facing charges in Romania for trafficking and criminal exploitation of 181 named children, being members of an organised criminal network and money laundering."