LONDON, Jan 15 - Criminal gangs in Britain are luring children into becoming drug mules by telling them they they will not be punished if they say they were coerced, citing a legal defense intended for trafficking victims, police and prosecutors said on Tuesday.
Gangs are recruiting children into the "county lines" drug trade using a section of the Modern Slavery Act meant to protect victims of human trafficking who are forced to commit crimes, they told a parliamentary inquiry on modern slavery.
Thousands of children, some as young as 12, are estimated to be used by gangs to carry drugs between cities and rural areas in Britain. Police say they have identified at least 1,500 criminal operations in the drug trade, and the number is rising.
"I am very concerned that ... the (2015 Modern Slavery Act) is having an unintended consequence," said Shaun Sawyer, Britain's top cop dealing with slavery and human trafficking.
"Top-end drug dealers are saying to young people: 'It's okay, you're not going to get charged'," he told the inquiry.
Despite being hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain is reviewing its law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, push companies to stop forced labor, or help victims as the crime continues to evolve.
The law's defense for slavery or trafficking victims who are forced to commit crimes is increasingly being used by children charged with drug offenses, according to Baljit Ubhey, director of prosecution policy for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
Once raised, the legal burden of proof is on the prosecution to disprove the defense, which is "almost impossible", she said.
"We are kind of snookered if someone raises the defense and we can't disprove it," Ubhey added, calling for the burden of proof to be balanced and require more detail from the defense.
"We can't quantify the problem ... but we are building up a picture that this ... is being abused by organized criminals."
But lawyers told the inquiry that young trafficking victims were being prosecuted often - such as Vietnamese teenagers found on cannabis farms - and said it would prove difficult to put the burden of proof on children who say they were forced into crime.
"It is a practical problem for both the police and the CPS," said James Robottom, a barrister at Seven Bedford Row. "But I'm not sure it ... would be in line with international obligations to put an evidential burden ... on the child," he added.
In Britain, 2,118 children suspected to have been trafficked were referred to the government in 2017, up 66 percent on 2016 and the highest annual number on record. About a third were British and many were used as drug runners, officials have said.A former gang leader, who once recruited teenagers as drug runners, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year that it is "too easy" for criminals to groom children into the trade with the promises of quick cash and notoriety.