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Last Updated: Friday, 25 January 2008, 20:16 GMT
Children feared used by crime gangs

By Stephanie Busari
BBC News

A police officer takes away a child
Police take away child after raid
Many of us have been confronted with the image of a woman of Eastern European origin cradling a child with hand outstretched, begging for money.

However, following Thursday's dramatic dawn raids in Slough, Berkshire, it would seem the practice could be more sinister.

Police believe they have smashed a Romanian criminal gang smuggling children as young as five into the country to beg and steal.

Officers from several forces, including the Metropolitan Police, raided 17 addresses across the county.

At least 25 adults were held, on suspicion of immigration breaches, deception, fraud, theft and pick-pocketing.

Police suspect poor families in eastern Europe may be forced into allowing gangs to take their children into the UK to carry out offences such as pick-pocketing and thefts near cash machines.

They estimate that each child is worth 100,000 a year to the gangs and the Romanian authorities estimate there are up to 2,000 children who have been smuggled into Britain.

The human trafficking trade now generates an estimated 5bn a year worldwide, making it the second biggest international criminal industry after the drugs trade.

Figures from the Met showed that before Romania joined the EU, its nationals were associated with 146 crimes over six months in Britain.

A year after it joined, the figure had leapt to 922 within the same period. Police believe about 70 people are behind the majority of the trafficking.

The children are thought most likely to have been taken from, or sold by, their poverty-stricken families in rural Romania and trafficked to the UK.

'Cordial reception'

Slough has proved to be a magnet for the new arrivals. Last year nearly 90 children arrived in the town pleading for help.

The children, some as young as 10 from the Roma community, arrived unaccompanied by adults.

Council leader Richard Stokes said he believed the children have been deliberately sent to Slough after payments to people traffickers in their home country.

"There have been 88 who have literally arrived on the town hall steps because they are told they will get a cordial reception in Slough," he said.

"I don't know who tells them that but Slough has always been a migrant town. The problem is we don't have the financial resources to provide for them."

We would like to see a system of guardianship - an independent guardian for every child identified
Christine Beddoe
Ecpat UK
The children rescued in Thursday's raids have been interviewed by specialist officers and several later reunited with relatives, Slough Social Services said.

Karl Davis, from education and children services, told BBC News: "We carried out individual assessments on all these children and five children remain in our care.

"Five families have come forward and we are satisfied that the arguments made were sufficient and we were happy for them to return to their families.

"We assessed them fully in terms of what the children and families told us. Some of the families were in the homes that were raided but some travelled from outside of Slough.

"Some of the children were too young to tell us much. The youngest is two years old and there are two 14-year-olds. The two-year-old is still in our care."

Trafficking watchdog

Christine Beddoe from Ecpat UK, an organisation which represents charities working against child exploitation, wants the government to create a national watchdog on trafficking that will become responsible for the collection of data.

"No-one collects statistics, so we want an independent watchdog that will do that and report annually to parliament," she said.

"We want much more work done in the identification of victims.

"We would like to see a system of guardianship - an independent guardian for every child identified - so even if they are handed to the family, that guardian will make sure they are kept safe."

David Farndale, of charity Care and Relief for the Young that works with Romanian street children, said: "It's common practice over there for parents to beg with their children.

"They are used as a convenient tool to get more money. They see it as a way of improving the amount of money they get by using children."

He added that the criminal gangs operating in the UK were a small minority.

"The majority of Romanians that I have worked with love their children and it's a small criminal element who have moved to England because they see it as an easy target. It is certainly not typical of the country," he said.

Often traffickers prey on children living on the streets in Romania, who have been abandoned by their families, he said.

Romania has recently increased its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts and took steps to improve government coordination of anti-trafficking efforts by creating the National Agency for the Prevention of Trafficking in late 2005.

Raid children back with families
25 Jan 08 |  Berkshire
Police target child crime gangs
24 Jan 08 |  Berkshire
Romania: Key facts and figures
30 Dec 06 |  Europe

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