Vulnerable people in South Yorkshire are being increasingly exploited by criminals who are trafficking them around the country to sell drugs.
The new trend - known as County Lines - sees criminal gangs coerce people who are often themselves drug users with mental health issues or chaotic lifestyles.
The victims are sent as mules into other counties but may also be “cuckooed” as drug dealers take over their homes to ply their trade.
Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings was on a raid with officers when they found a man from North Africa who had been brought here to work on a cannabis farm.
Mr Billings says he is very concerned about these “hidden victims” of crime. “These are vulnerable people in plain sight who are being manipulated by criminals.
“I was recently on a raid where cannabis was being grown and the 'gardener' looking after it had been trafficked from North Africa on a forged passport. He didn’t speak any English and he must have been terrified. Although he was an offender, he is also a victim.”
Mr Billings says former mining communities in South Yorkshire have high unemployment which means people become vulnerable to drug gangs.
Det Chief Insp Paul Wilson, who is strategic force drugs lead at Doncaster Command Team, says police first became aware of County Lines about a year ago. It’s hard to quantify the problem because of the hidden victims.
He said: “London was one of the first cities where it was seen. Established drug dealers were known to local police and appeared on CCTV so they started sending vulnerable people into a neighbouring area, such as Brighton, to sell drugs. Police didn’t know these new people, they didn’t live there and they travel back at the end of the day.
“We are aware that some of our drug dealing is being exported to other areas such as Derbyshire and Humberside and we have met with other Forces to see who is experiencing it and to collect data.
“The vulnerable adults often include drug users who have chaotic lifestyles or mental health issues. One of our priorities is to safeguard these people - we need to identify who is being exploited, educate them and divert them away from falling into a criminal lifestyle.”
Police are working with a number of agencies to tackle the problem and say council housing officers in particular can help identify victims who are being cuckooed.