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Operation Headdress

More than 70% of investigations that TOEX are supporting relate to VAWG offences and 83.9% of these have a primary threat of child sexual abuse or modern slavery and human trafficking.

Operation Headdress is one of these investigations.

During August 2021, a referral was received by the TOEX team in the West Midlands following information provided by a third sector partner indicating there was a network of brothels operating in Birmingham and surrounding areas.

The TOEX response

Initial development was undertaken by the team, with assistance from forces, which identified an organised crime group (OCG) recruiting vulnerable young females in Hungary, usually via a family member or friend already in the UK.

The victims left their homes, some leaving children, with the offer of work in hospitality or agriculture, before finding out the offer had fallen through once they had arrived in the UK. One victim was exchanged for the price of a mobile telephone.

Once in the country, the group, using debt bondage, advertised the women online and forced them to engage in sex work, paying controllers a proportion of the money made. Their names and identities were also used to open bank accounts and pay for utilities such as gas/electric and council tax.

Enforcement activity was carried out in late 2021, with a number of nominals in the UK being arrested and charged with conspiracy to arrange or facilitate the travel of another person with a view to exploitation and conspiracy to control prostitution for gain.

T/Detective Chief Inspector Dave Rawlings, the Operation Headdress Silver Chair, said, “Operation Headdress sits within the top 10 Serious and Organised Crime Threat List with many high harm indicators including allegations of rape and false imprisonment, grooming of young children, and drug use/dependency.

“Despite the initial arrests, witness testimonies and intelligence indicated that the upstream nominals of this organised crime group were in Hungary and their ongoing business model was well organised and sophisticated.

“Therefore, to truly disrupt and dismantle the network, we needed to work in unison with our Hungarian counterparts, supported by Europol.”

One year later and following extensive work, members of the TOEX team and ROCUs, supported by National Crime Agency colleagues, travelled to Budapest for an operational meeting to discuss next steps.

The key aims of the meeting were:

  • Work collaboratively to enrich law enforcements knowledge of the OCG’s business model and structure.
  • Develop a joint safeguarding strategy, to ensure those at risk are protected from harm.
  • Consider a joint Investigation between Hungary and the UK with a clear focus on the controllers and top-level nominals.

The intelligence-led strategic meeting, a UK Policing and Europol first, was very successful, and resulted in a number of recommendations being made for UK and Hungarian law enforcement to progress the investigation and ultimately disrupt the OCG and safeguard further victims.