By Magid El-Amin, 8 May 2023

The writer is director of evidence and insights at Catch22. His role is part-funded by Social Business Trust

Criminal exploitation. Two words that on their own dredge up bad enough images. But, when these words combine, a term of singular depravity is formed.

And in the UK, there aren’t many types of criminal exploitation worse than county lines. 

You’ve heard this phrase used often enough on news reports or maybe in conversation with your more socially minded friends. The word “scourge” is never far away. You might have read about it online or in a newspaper or seen a video in your feed – without perhaps always grasping what the term really means.

In short, it's a form or criminal exploitation. 

When you walk along the High Street of any major market town on a Saturday afternoon, it’s not unlikely that elements of organised crime are operating right next to you.

From the outskirts of Greater Manchester to the suburbs of Birmingham – and well beyond – criminal gangs are targeting children as young as seven to run drugs on their behalf.

The Children’s Society, a national charity, says county lines is when “criminals befriend children, either online or offline, and then manipulate them into drug dealing”. The 'lines' refer to mobile phones that are used to control a young person who is delivering the drugs, often to towns outside their home county – sometimes a long way from their home.

Sophisticated and ruthless

The gangs’ methods are as sophisticated as they are ruthless. They lure children by advertising ‘recruitment opportunities’ through snappily designed social media posts. And they can approach them directly via popular online games like FIFA and Call of Duty.

Their methods have trapped children – and their families – from all backgrounds. Unsuspecting parents often have no idea exploitation is happening right under their nose: often inside the family home.

By approaching and befriending children on social media and gifting in-game prizes and credits, the gangs groom children into accepting illicit deliveries like burner phones that are used to communicate between the dealer and the gang. The young person who was playing FIFA is now on their way to becoming a victim of county lines and, in the eyes of the law, a criminal.

The gifting also entraps the child in a form of debt bondage, obliging them via pernicious threats to pay it back to the gang by working for them to repay it.

County lines drug supply routes across the UK. Source:

There are over 1,000 different county lines currently in operation

Majority originate from London, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, and Merseyside

Profit per line: over £800,000 annually

Overall profit: over £800,000,000 annually

Turning the tide

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are many agencies and organisations working to combat this growing problem.

At Catch22, a social business where I work, our county lines support and rescue service works to secure the safe homecoming of young people involved in county lines from London, West Midlands, Merseyside and Greater Manchester.

Our caseworkers offer personalised support to young people and their families, with that support often beginning on the journey home. The Midlands, owing to its direct links to the northwest and London, is the busiest point in this chain of criminality.

Catch22 also run a county lines support service specifically for the Kent region.

The exploitation doesn’t stop with children

And the exploitation isn’t limited to children. It includes vulnerable adults with learning difficulties – meaning the abuse can be even more persistent and all-encompassing.

In one case, a gang targeted and befriended a young man with Asperger's syndrome. He was his mother’s primary carer. This type of exploitation is a phenomenon – or crime – that’s become known as cuckooing. It’s the practice of taking over a person's home using the property to facilitate exploitation. It borrows its name from cuckoos, who take over the nests of other birds. In this case, the gang accosted the young man and forced him to run drugs on their behalf while using his mother’s house as their base.

These gangs trade in the currency of fear, with the threat of violence but one step away. Terror is used to maintain control. Victims are often made to carry out crimes in the knowledge that any deviation from the mission will lead to cruel brutality on their friends, family and even pets.

Breaking this cycle of crime by extracting the young person from the grip of county lines, and supporting the young person’s family, are the core tenets of Catch22’s service. 

Data doing good

Our data analytics helps identify patterns and hotspots of county lines, using open data to understand patterns of exploitation and those most at risk. This extends to using in-house, low-code business applications to provide support and information to young people to show parents the signs of exploitation – and to give caseworkers in the field the digital tools they need when working out-of-hours in precarious situations.

Catch22 also supports young people with online safety through programmes like our social switch project, and by influencing policy by helping push for the Online Harms Bill.  

Meanwhile, partnerships with police forces, national crime bodies, public transport companies and other charities are essential in understanding the scale of the issue. This helps us to form powerful and effective interventions to tackle an ever-evolving criminal problem.

And for me, I’m proud to be working for an organisation that is turning the tide and bringing hope and promise to the lives of those who are being exploited.

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SBT has been supporting Catch22 since 2020