Police in Northern Ireland have made over 30 arrests and charged a number of suspects in relation to a major investigation into abuse of vulnerable young people.

Children have been plied with alcohol or drugs and trafficked around Northern Ireland for sexual exploitation, according to senior police.

A total of 22 suspected victims have been identified and more than 30 people arrested as part of a major investigation into organized crime north of the border.

Most of the victims lived in residential care homes at the time of the incidents. The allegations relate to periods when they failed to return after nights out. Boys and girls have allegedly both been targeted.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has called in experts the UK to help with their investigation, the Irish Independent reports.

PSNI Detective Superintendent Sean Wright, who revealed that up to 50 arrests have been made, said: "We haven't identified a sex ring, but we are looking for it."

The officer added: "We have looked to see if there are links and connections across. We can see, for example, that many of the children know each other, we can see that some of the suspects know each other.

"What we are trying to now understand is what or how significant those links are, how organised this may or may not be, and through those investigations to try and understand what degree of organisation is in place by these perpetrators to groom and exploit young people.”

Assistant chief constable Mark Hamilton said: "We see children who are taken to parties and who are offered drugs for free, and then at some point have to pay that back through sexual acts.

"Many children are offered friendship, care, love and presents and accept drugs. Some are then threatened and it can be a progressive set of criminality."

He told Stormont assembly members: "We have some evidence of children being put in taxis and sent to another town for the purposes of attending a party or meeting other people. That has the hallmarks of trafficking."

The PSNI said they were engaging in broader analysis.

"We are now looking at today's offences and bringing in a new approach to child sexual exploitation," the senior officer said.

Hamilton added: "We are determined to take a far more aggressive stance against those offences.

"What is very clear is that the victims of those crimes are very vulnerable people, in some cases with complex needs, and therefore require a complex and sophisticated approach and response from the police service."

Social workers and charity officials are assisting the team of PSNI detectives handling the cases.

Neil Anderson, NSPCC Northern Ireland head of service, said: "As the details of this investigation begin to unfold, I want to stress NSPCC's commitment to working closely with other safeguarding and child protection agencies to ensure a co-ordinated response to the support of victims."

He added: "The common factor seen in children who become victims of sexual exploitation is their vulnerability. Abusers take advantage of an imbalance of power, grooming children for sexual exploitation and abuse through varying degrees and stages of enticement, coercion, intimidation and violence.

"The early focus of this investigation in Northern Ireland has been on children in care but it is important to remember that vulnerable children from all backgrounds and all walks of life can become victims of sexual exploitation.

"One of the main learning points from investigations of child sexual exploitation in England is that measuring the full size and scale of the issue is very difficult. For Northern Ireland, our concern is that we may only be seeing the first signs of a bigger problem.

"The harsh reality is that Northern Ireland is not immune to sexual exploitation of children such as that so widely reported in connection with recent court cases in Rochdale and Oxford. This is a sharp reminder that every one of us has to remain vigilant and when we have concerns about a child, we have to speak out."