Once again, they had gathered on their favourite corner. Where Jury Street meets Bury New Road; the prime hangout for the network of “spotters” who monitored this corner of north Manchester.
As police approached, some whistled the alarm. Fireworks screeched into the grey sky. Metal shutters on shops selling fake goods were slammed shut. Dealers dived down Harris Street, scooping up bin bags of drugs from the pavement.
Until recently, the spotters rarely saw police patrolling this corner of Cheetham Hill, just north of the city centre’s gleaming glass towers. So violent were its warren of scruffy streets, the area had effectively become a “no-go” zone.
Here, beneath the shadow of Strangeways prison, 33 organised crime groups, composed largely along ethnic lines, worked with or against each other. Police intelligence confirmed extreme levels of brutality, extortion and intimidation.
In criminal terms, these are among the most threatening streets in Britain. They are also where vulnerable child asylum seekers – abducted from outside hotels run by the Home Office – are believed to have been taken.
Trafficked 260 miles from the south coast, some of the refugees had been coerced into Cheetham Hill’s organised crime groups, an Observer investigation can reveal.
One child protection source based in Sussex said safety briefings into missing children indicated some had “cropped up” in an area of Cheetham Hill known locally as “counterfeit alley” because of its prevalence of outlets flogging fake gear.
Sussex police have so far tracked down at least two children who disappeared from Home Office hotels within the Greater Manchester police (GMP) area. How many remain missing is unknown.
Specialist child trafficking guardians from children’s charity Barnardo’s are also working with GMP after highly vulnerable unaccompanied asylum seekers who disappeared from Home Office hotels were found in Manchester.
Currently, 200 children are missing from hotels run by the Home Office. Where they might be is a topic of significant debate. The answer is further afield than most suspect. The Observer investigation reveals that some have even been found outside the UK.
Almost two-thirds of the 43 police forces in England and Wales have so far recovered children who vanished from six hotels run by the Home Office to care for unaccompanied asylum seekers.
Only a third of the youngsters missing from a hotel in Warwickshire have been found.
For those trafficked to Cheetham Hill, welfare concerns are legitimate. Some of those taken from the south coast may have even been kidnapped for a second time in Manchester, an attempt to force families to pay the cost of their small boat crossing from France.
“The past 12 months has seen a significant increase in the use of kidnap as a tool to demand payment for illegal immigration,” said Neil Blackwood, the affable GMP detective superintendent leading Operation Vulcan – a dedicated team of officers set up to eradicate organised crime from “counterfeit alley”.
Blackwood said intelligence confirmed the hotel network used to house asylum seekers was targeted by organised crime. “Large numbers go missing en masse – 20 to 30 Afghans in one go, [unaccompanied] kids too. Where are they going? They are brought to Cheetham Hill, scooped up by criminal enterprises and put to work.
“Children are taken into county lines, put to work by their own nationality selling drugs. They have come to our attention within weeks of arriving in the UK.”
Certainly, Cheetham Hill appeared to be a known destination point for new arrivals. One Sudanese man had been in the UK one day before officers found him being exploited by the area’s criminals.
The youngest arrivals, Blackwood added, were coerced into the riskiest work: selling drugs. The senior officer believes Afghanistan’s economic woes after the west’s withdrawal in 2021 might explain why teenage Afghans ended up in Manchester’s drugs trade.
“Some young Afghans appear to have been trafficked directly into the drugs market, sent to work in county lines,” he said.
Manchester police are currently investigating 13- and 14-year-old asylum seekers from the Middle East who were coerced into drug gangs shortly after reaching the UK. “We have ongoing investigations around the exploitation of vulnerable minors who have quite rightly sought asylum. These investigations have similar traits to county lines,” added Blackwood.
The movement of child asylum seekers from Sussex to Cheetham Hill is one route among many. In neighbouring Kent, the Home Office runs another two hotels for unaccompanied youngsters. So far, Kent police have tracked down 46 missing children to London, a number that experts say suggests an organised trafficking route.
Those disappearing from Kent are taken everywhere. Almost half the police forces in England and Wales – 19 – have located a child who vanished from a Home Office hotel in Kent. Children from the county have been found as far away as Cleveland, Nottingham, West Yorkshire and Merseyside. Six were found in Somerset. Another three were taken over the border to south Wales; another seven were taken more than 500 miles away to Scotland.
Of 160 child asylum seekers who disappeared from Home Office venues in Kent, at least 63 remain missing.
Patricia Durr, the chief executive of Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK), said the data indicated “criminal networks are moving children across the country to exploit them” in an evolving “child protection crisis”.
In Warwickshire, another Home Office hotel near Rugby began accepting child asylum seekers in August. A steady stream of children have since disappeared. Of 38 children who went missing, only 13 have been located.
Warwickshire police sources confirmed they have been working closely with the Greater Manchester force. A separate child protection source added it was “likely” children from the West Midlands may also have ended up in Cheetham Hill. The force has also coordinated attempts to locate missing children with officers in Birmingham, London, Kent and Sussex.
Sussex has three Home Office hotels dedicated to housing child asylum seekers; one in Brighton and two in Eastbourne. Again, its missing children have been found throughout the UK by 18 different police forces from Somerset to Humberside, but also in Ireland and Scotland.
Currently, 76 children are missing from the Brighton hotel, a figure that alone has prompted calls for a public inquiry. The Observer can now reveal that another 88 children have vanished from an Eastbourne hotel, and almost half – 39 – are yet to be found.
Young asylum seekers are, agree experts, commonly coerced into criminal activity. Last September, one was arrested over possession with intent to supply drugs in Cambridgeshire. Days later, another was apprehended over money laundering and possession of an offensive weapon in Hampshire.
That was followed in October with a burglary in London. The same month, another child was arrested over intent to supply drugs in Gloucester. In December, a minor was arrested on suspicion of working in a cannabis farm in Tottenham.
Four children from the Eastbourne hotels have been arrested, all in London for either theft or robbery. A child who disappeared from Warwickshire is under investigation by Humberside police. Another three from Kent have been arrested outside of the county.
The Home Office says the welfare of minors in its care is an “absolute priority”, and that when a child goes missing, a multi-agency team is mobilised to establish their whereabouts..
Violence in “counterfeit alley” used to be endemic. According to intelligence, owners of the fake designer shops carried baseball bats and knives they weren’t afraid to use.
Rivals raided other shops with machetes. Shoppers weren’t safe. Blackwood described how a middle-aged female customer was knocked unconscious in front of her two children after arguing over prices.
New criminal factions had to be aggressive to survive. Established groups traded on their reputation, namely the Cheetham Hill Gang – the Hillbillies – and fearsome affiliates, the Gooch Gang, who were suspected of money laundering in the area.
Policing “counterfeit alley” became fraught. Neighbourhood officers were routinely intimidated.
Throughout last summer, against a backdrop of child asylum seekers vanishing in growing numbers from Home Office hotels, the police decided enough was enough. In September, Operation Vulcan deployed its first officers. Among them was DCI Jen Kelly. No woman she knew would walk down “counterfeit alley” because of its notoriety. Sure enough, up to 50 twentysomethings soon surrounded her. “There was an undercurrent of: ‘If you try and challenge us, we’ll do something against you,’” she said.
Alongside her, Blackwood knew the district’s dark side. A former kidnap specialist, the senior officer had investigated a series of cases in Cheetham Hill.
Kidnapping was a dependable tool for its criminals, usually to settle debts. Albanian gangs took it to another level: targeting individuals from rival cannabis farms across Cheetham Hill, some of which were likely manned by trafficked children locked inside.
Of the 200 children missing from its hotels, the Home Office said the majority are Albanian.
Kidnap is now used to demand payment from asylum seekers for the cost of crossing the Channel by small boat, which Blackwood said can cost £10,000 to £20,000.
DC Colin Ward from the force’s modern slavery unit said use of violence in “debt bondage” cases can be shocking. Recently, officers rescued a 16-year-old Vietnamese boy from a cannabis farm “whipped with wire”, beaten and tortured. Owing money to criminals means that even when found, there is a high risk children will go missing again.
“Unfortunately, they often do go missing because they have to pay that debt. We’re trying to document children more in that regard so we can find them somewhere safe,” said Ward.
Other nationalities routinely cropped up on the streets of Cheetham Hill. Most of the men employed in “counterfeit alley” were from conflict zones – Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Many were traumatised.
“They are extremely vulnerable. We’ve come across some with shrapnel injuries, conflict scars,” said Blackwood.
Kelly added that many remain oblivious to the factaren’t aware they are exploited by hardened criminals. When offered support to help trafficking victims, most turn it down.
Spotters and dealers – including one teenage boy from Pakistan – were paid £20 a day for 10-hour shifts. Kelly described youngsters soaked by rain, shivering on street corners in shoddy designer gear.
Despite the low pay, one Syrian spotter still sent money to his mother and six sisters back home.
Another commuted daily from a Warrington asylum hotel to work in what was – before Vulcan’s intervention – a brazen outdoor market dealing largely in prescription drugs such as diazepam and tramadol.
Children carried drugs resupplied from a central stash in bin bags. “They’d be left among the rubbish on the street, hidden in plain sight. I’ve lost count of the amount of bin bags we found full of drugs, but they’ve changed tactics since we started,” said Kelly. Her work is dangerous. On the Home Office’s official risk assessment measurement, a score of 700 is high. Drug dealing in Cheetham Hill alone commands a figure of 1,352, the highest in the north-west.
Crime’s internationalisation is highlighted by Vulcan’s work. Cheetham Hill is clearly linked to the trafficking networks of northern France and beyond.
Next month, Border Force officials will be embedded within Vulcan to trace new arrivals heading to north Manchester.
“It’s about stopping the flow of people and goods coming to us,” said Blackwood.
Vulcan has proved a profound success. The scenes described at the start of the article, witnessed as recently as two months ago, are already history. Organised crime groups have melted away, so too the spotters on Jury Street. What Blackwood assumed would take years took several months. More than 70 counterfeit outlets have been closed and scores of people have been arrested for crimes including offensive weapons, drugs and assault. In addition, Vulcan has seized £250,000 in cash, huge amounts of drugs along with 260 tonnes of counterfeit goods worth £35m.
Such success has a downside. Driving organised crime from the streets has meant its exploited children have disappeared too.
Lockwood, gazing down a near-deserted Bury New Road, said: “Displacement is an issue. The questions is: where have they gone?”
• This article was amended on 20 February 2023 because an earlier version misrendered the name of Bury New Road.