The arrests of almost 200 people on suspicion of child sex crimes, from grooming to live streaming abuse, have stoked fears about the growing online exploitation and trafficking of children in Britain, anti-slavery groups said on Wednesday.
A third of 192 arrests made in a recent week-long crackdown were for severe offences, such as blackmail and live streaming, according to the police and the National Crime Agency (NCA) – dubbed Britain’s FBI – while 245 children were saved from harm.
“We know that as children’s online habits change, offenders are adapting with them,” said Zoe Hilton of the NCA.
“These individuals are learning how young people communicate online and are using this knowledge to contact, befriend and abuse them,” the NCA’s head of safeguarding said in a statement.
From Britain and the United States to India and the Philippines, children are increasingly being abused, trafficked and sold online, often via social media and classified advertising websites, anti-slavery campaigners say.
An NCA spokeswoman said the recent spate of arrests did not show obvious signs of trafficking, and that most victims of sex trafficking advertised and sold online in Britain were adults.
Yet several anti-trafficking groups told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the rise in online child sex abuse was alarming because victims are often trafficked before being exploited.
“The concern is we simply do not know the true scale and nature of this horrific form of child abuse and its impact on children,” said Bharti Patel, chief executive of ECPAT UK.
The crimes are tough to crack as they transcend borders while access to the internet is growing globally, experts say.
A British couple were jailed for 17 years in October for live streaming the abuse of a child to a woman in California.
“Millions of children around the world are in danger as increased technology, access to the internet and the dark web make the live streaming of child sexual abuse easier,” said David Westlake, head of the International Justice Mission UK.
In Britain, 1,278 children suspected to have been trafficked were referred to the government last year, up 30 percent on 2015 and marking the highest number on record, according to the NCA.
At least 13,000 people in Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of modern slavery – but police say that the true figure is more likely to be in the tens of thousands.