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County lines is a growing issue in the UK affecting many vulnerable young people. It is another form of modern slavery where criminal gangs organise the storage, sale and distribution of drugs from metropolitan cities to rural towns. As police operations have become more successful in uncovering the crime, so the manner of exploitation grows more sophisticated.

After identifying a market for their drugs, gangs will groom and recruit young people and will target any gender or ethnicity, using social media to make contact. Mobile phones are the key tool used in the chain usually provided by the gang to the young person to keep direct contact and control of them.

This subject follows on from our previous productions exploring modern slavery in other areas. Our new production CODE digs deeper into the issue. Read our research below.

Recent Data

  • Between 2012 and 2016 convictions of children aged 10-17 for possession increased by 77% (Ministry of Justice 2017)
  • County Lines exist throughout the UK and there are 1,000 in operation (
  • The majority operate from London, the West Midlands and Merseyside (
  • The average profit per line is £800,000 (
  • County lines involve many forms of exploitation including coercion, trafficking, child sexual exploitation, gun and knife crime
  • In the 1st quarter of 2022 the National Referral Mechanism received 417 referrals of potential victims of modern slavery who were under 18

Indicators of Exploitation

  • Regularly missing from school or home or being found out of their home area
  • Sudden and unexplained possession of money, clothes or mobile phones
  • Large numbers of texts and calls being received
  • Older or controlling adults in their friendship group or gang association
  • Leaving home or care setting without any explanation
  • Possible self-harm or unexplained injuries
  • Significant worsening of schools results
  • Changes to mood and emotional health



What should you do if you are worried about a young person and fear they may be involved with a County Lines gang?

Below are links to online help and phone lines you can contact with questions and concerns:

Helplines and Information

Learn how to spot the signs with the Eyes Open campaign

Speak anonymously to Crimestoppers 0800 555 111

Calls to Childline are private and confidential 0800 1111

Catch22 have worked with children and young people to get them out of harmful situations

St Giles Trust work with partners to help families affected by County Lines and gangs

If you need help or are worried about someone or something you’ve seen, call the free, 24-hour Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline on 08000 121 700