By TOM KELLY and SUE REID
Last updated at 21:53 25 January 2008
Fagin-style criminal gangs from Romania are making vast amounts of money from trafficking children into Britain to work as pickpockets and beggars, it is revealed today.
The money amassed by the gangs is being funnelled back to Romania, often to build lavish homes for the gang members, the Daily Mail has discovered.
Villages where once horses and carts were the only form of transport are being transformed into places with expensive cars and glitzy mansions.
One such place is Tandarei, 90 miles from the capital Bucharest. On a visit to Slough last year, a Daily Mail reporter found 100 members of an extended family, many under 18, who had arrived from the Romanian village.
The journey from Romania to Britain has become one of the most lucrative moves for those leaving Eastern Europe.
Many of those making the 1,500-mile trip are Romany gypsies who have embarked on a life of crime in the UK.
The revelation comes as police staged a dramatic series of dawn raids yesterday in a campaign to stamp out the trafficking of Romanian slave children smuggled into Britain.
Many of the youngsters watched in terror from bedroom windows before being carried away. Ten children were taken into care.
Hundreds have settled in Slough – just a £3 bus journey to London Victoria Station.
By the end of May last year, 88 Romanian gypsy children, apparently without children, had turned up at the town’s civic centre.
Yesterday, 24 suspected “controllers” were arrested on suspicion of human trafficking and running a “highly organised” theft business involving up to £1billion a year. The youngsters ranged in age from less than one to 17.
Many such children are made to travel to central London every day and carry out crimes including pickpocketing, credit card cloning and distraction thefts targeting commuters and tourists.
Almost 400 officers were involved in the raids yesterday on rundown properties in Slough, Berkshire.
But detectives said the operation was only the start and predicted more raids to tackle the dramatic increase in street thefts and petty crime since Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU 12 months ago.
Officers wearing body armour and supported by dogs screamed “police, police, police” as they used sledgehammers to smash through doors of gang members.
“The objective was to disrupt and detect criminal offences in relation to organised crime networks in Romania, which represents itself in an upsurge in crime in London,” said Commander Steve Allen, who led the operation.
“We have taken to safety children who may have been brought into the country to commit crime.
“The background starts a year ago with the addition of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU, when it became clear there was quite a dramatic increase in theft from people around central London.
Going in: Police raid a house in Slough today. They found children, large sums of money and credit cards
“It became clear we weren’t talking about low-level crime, but one end of a highly organised network which involved, most seriously, the trafficking of children.
“This operation is about protecting vulnerable people, about providing reassurance to all members of the community and bringing to justice the members of serious organised crime.”
Commander Allen said the number of Romanian criminals known to them in central London rose from 12 in 2006 to 214 last year after the expansion of the EU.
He estimated that each active Romanian criminal makes about £100,000 a year, most of which is channelled back to his home country. The cash is used to fund luxury cars and homes.
The Romanian crimewave led to 700 more thefts in central London in 2007 than the previous year, he added.
At one address in Slough, police found 12 adults and eight children crammed into a small three-bedroom house.
Commander Allen believes there is more than one gang involved, and many more trafficked children still to be found.
He said: “The reason we targeted Slough is because that’s where the intelligence this time has led us. We have other intelligence available to us that would take us into other parts of London.”
Last night, the freed children were being cared for by Slough Borough Council. Officials said attempts would be made to reunite them with family either in the UK or in Romania.
The adults arrested are also accused of breaches of immigration rules, deception, fraud and theft. Many were understood to be Romany gypsies.
Large sums of cash and credit cards were also seized.
One of the offences associated with the gangs are so-called deception crimes. A popular trick involves a gang member asking for directions with a London Underground map while another steals a handbag or a mobile phone.
The leader of Westminster City Council, Sir Simon Milton, praised the arrests and said Eastern European gangs were behind an “unprecedented surge” in pickpocketing in Westminster.
He added: “The Government has been talking tough on crime, but it is about time it started following its words with actions and started forcibly removing those foreign nationals involved in criminal behaviour.
“We know from intelligence that many of the individuals arrested by police today have been convicted previously, which is simply unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.”