Thursday, April 8, 2010

Child trafficking ring busted in Romania

The leaders of a child-trafficking operation that put hundreds of beggars on the streets of Britain were targeted in a series of raids today in a remote Romanian town where opulent mansions have sprung up since the country joined the European Union.

Roma children aged from 7 to 15 were bought or taken, possibly by force, from their parents in rural Romania and trained to beg and steal, making millions of pounds a year in Britain for their gangmasters at the height of the scam, police believe.

The alleged child-trafficking ring based in Tandarei, in southern Romania, was said to be responsible for sending at least 168 children to London, from where they would also travel to other towns and cities.

Gangmasters would take care of the children’s travel documents and accommodation in Britain, where they would often sleep in cramped conditions and be forced to hand over the money they obtained.

The dawn raids were part of a wider crackdown on traffickers active in Britain, Italy and Spain since Romania became a member of the EU in 2007.

Police who broke up a gang operating in Milan estimated that Romanian children were making €12,000 (£10,500) a month each on the streets and through the theft of credit cards and mobile phones.

“The network was recruiting children and forcing them to beg and commit petty thefts in Great Britain,” said a police official in Bucharest.

“They were taken from their families in Tandarei and they were forced into shoplifting and pickpocketing. We will have to see if the children were given willingly by their parents for the exchange of money or if they were taken by force.”

Some of the children are understood to be in care in Britain while others have been sent back to Romania. Police sources say that some families were prepared to give up their children for as little as €200 each.

After a year of planning at least 17 people were arrested after the raids on 33 homes in Tandarei by a small army of organised crime investigators, assisted by 26 Metropolitan Police officers and two observers from Interpol. The identities or roles of those held was not disclosed.

Firearms, jewellery, luxury cars and large sums of money were found at the homes of suspects, according to local media, which said that 320 Romanian officers were involved in the operation.

Tandarei, with its population of 12,000 people, 150km east of Bucharest, has undergone a seemingly miraculous economic boom in the past few years.

A town previously known for grim blocks of flats and traditional single-story stone buildings now has about 50 luxury homes and more and more BMWs and Audis are seen on the streets.

Asked last autumn about the newfound wealth of some residents, Vasile Sava, the mayor, said: “How can I know where they get the money from? Nobody is telling us how they made the money abroad, legally or illegally.”

Tandarei was identified as the home town of 15 children found living in three homes in Manchester last November who had been forced to carry out cashpoint distraction thefts.

Scotland Yard teamed up with Romanian police in a £1 million investigation funded by the EU to track down the criminals behind people-trafficking. They would not confirm if yesterday’s arrests were linked to the Manchester operation.

“Of course, it is not all Romanians who are here who are causing this problem,” said a British police spokesman. “The aim is to bring people to justice for human trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable members of the Roma community.

“We will be seeking to disrupt organised crime networks in any way, prosecuting key individuals here and in Romania.”

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