London’s Met Police help bust child trafficking gang in Romania

20 April 2010

A gang of Romanian child traffickers responsible for forcing Romanian Roma children to beg and steal on London’s streets were arrested on 8 April during an operation supported by London’s Met police.

Eighteen people were arrested following raids on 34 homes in Tandarei, a sleepy town of 15,000 people in south east Romania. The ringleaders had been tracked by police for two years and are thought to be responsible for trafficking at least 168 children to Britain.

The arrests took place in an area of the town which in the last few years had seen a dramatic rise in prosperity. New unexplained wealth brought local residents luxury homes and expensive cars.

In addition to the arrests, the operation recovered and seized four AK47 rifles, 12 hunting rifles, 12 shotguns including military grade weapons and six handguns. Other items seized included €25,000, £25,000 and 40,000 Romanian Lei, 13 high value cars, six houses and a substantial amount of evidence linking the gang to crime in the UK and other EU countries.

The gang were responsible for getting hold of children aged between seven and 15 who were then trained to beg and steal in London. Police claim that children were making their traffickers up to £100,000 a year, through begging and stealing credit cards, cash and mobile phones.

Some are thought to have been taken by force or given away by desperate parents in debt bondage, while others were sold by their parents for as little as €200 each. Some children rescued from the gang have been placed into care in Britain whilst others have been returned to their families. The gang placed children with families under their control in grossly overcrowded accommodation. The children were deprived of education and healthcare and forced into crime.

Operation Golf is a Metropolitan Police investigation into what is one of the largest human trafficking rings in Europe. It is a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) with the Romanian National Police operating under EU law. It targets Romanian organised criminal gangs who traffic children to the UK who are forced to beg and steal on the streets of London. With the support of specialist units the Operation Golf team are currently in the process of identifying, recovering and safeguarding the child victims trafficked by the gang and exploited in the UK.

The one million pound investigation is 70 per cent funded by the European Commission. The operation in April involved 26 Met police officers joining a 320-strong team of Romanian law enforcement professionals.

Superintendent Gravett of Operation Golf said: “The trafficking of children is deplorable and is child abuse. You would not normally believe that organised crime benefits from begging and stealing by children but this exploitation on such a scale earns millions for the gangs in Romania. This operation is the first of its kind in Europe and it demonstrates the resolve of the Metropolitan Police to tackle organised crime within London no matter where it is controlled from.”

Klara Skrivankova, Anti-Slavery International’s Trafficking Programme Co-ordinator, said: “It is very important that the Met police are taking on the traffickers in their home country because trafficking is not a crime that respects international borders. The traffickers have made incredible profits from forcing children to beg and steal. For too long the trafficking gangs have seen their crimes as high profit but low risk. Hopefully successful operations like this can help alter that view and reduce the number of people of all ages abused in this way.”

Tandarei is home to an estimated 2,000 Roma, a community which suffers high unemployment and discrimination in Romania. A UN report from 2007 reported that up to 70 per cent of Roma households had no running water. This poverty makes the community particularly vulnerable to becoming trafficked as they search for employment opportunities.

The Tandarei raids are part of wider efforts against Romanian traffickers, which have become active across Europe since Romania joined the EU in 2007. Other European cities long affected by crime caused by Romanian trafficked children include Madrid and Milan.

Ninety five per cent of children under-14s caught stealing on Madrid’s streets in 2008 were Romanian Roma according to Spanish Police. Children under the age of 14 are protected from prosecution under Spanish law.

In 2007, Italian police investigating the rise of pick-pocketing in Milan were able to expose a criminal gang controlling 50 Roma children forced to steal. The operation resulted in the imprisonment of 26 Romanians for up to 14 years for child slavery offences.

Further information can be obtained from Superintendent Bernie Gravett and Chief Inspector Colin Carswell of Operation Golf.