ECPAT UK’s Information, Media and Communications Officer, Sinead Geoghegan, blogs about BBC Two’s The Prosecutors: Modern Slavery - documenting the UK’s first conviction under the Modern Slavery Act for child trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation.

In January this year, three people were convicted in the UK’s first successful prosecution for labour exploitation of children under the Modern Slavery Act – a landmark case under this new legislation. Viet Nguyen, Thu Nguyen and Giang Tran were found guilty of exploiting children in nail bars across the UK. This month, BBC Two aired an episode of its documentary series, The Prosecutors, which followed UK prosecutor Eran Cutliffe as she built a case to secure this historic conviction. Filmed over almost two years, the show offered the public a rare glimpse at what goes on behind-the-scenes in the UK criminal justice and child protection systems in cases of child exploitation.

In the episode, we joined Eran on her journey to build a case against the traffickers. The prosecution team’s determination to secure justice for the victims was impressive, and the programme showed them overcoming a range of difficulties to achieve successful convictions. However the most interesting aspect of the programme was perhaps not the prosecution itself, but the events that unfolded after the victims were initially found by police and removed from the situation of exploitation.

During the programme, we learned that a range of professionals working in different regions were involved in the identification and safeguarding of these children, demonstrating elements of positive multiagency working to protect the victims. However, we also saw all too familiar gaps in the response, most notably the risks to victims if they are not adequately safeguarded and supported. In this case, all four child victims went missing from foster care shortly after being safeguarded. ECPAT UK’s ground breaking research on trafficked children going missing from care showed that between September 2014 and 2015, 28% of children identified or suspected as victims of trafficking went missing from care at least once. On average, children go missing more than twice, and some are never seen again. As we saw on the programme, children who go missing from care are often retrafficked. This was the case for victims Ten, Leesah and Ban, who were later found in exploitation in other nail bars elsewhere in the country. Like many others, Tran remained missing.

The Prosecutors highlighted the risk of going missing by showing how easy – and commonplace – it is for this to happen if police, social workers and others involved in their care aren’t adequately trained in the specific, additional needs of child victims of trafficking. Frustratingly, we saw incredibly vulnerable girls go missing from a care system that is supposed to protect them. Failing children in this way - by neglecting to safeguard their basic rights and protect them from abuse - is unacceptable. One way we can reduce the risk of children going missing is by making training in child trafficking and modern slavery mandatory for all frontline workers. ECPAT UK has campaigned for this for many years, delivering training on identifying and responding to child victims of trafficking for more than two decades to inform professionals including police officers, social workers, foster carers and healthcare workers on safeguarding best practice. However there is evidently still an urgent need in this area.

The case featured in the documentary also drew attention to a specific challenge for children – proving that they are in fact under 18. During the case, evidence emerged that threw one of the children’s status as a child into question. Despite the child’s own claims, and an age assessment process that showed she was a child, challenges to her age became a central issue which almost lost the case for the prosecution. ECPAT UK consistently finds that age disputes are a major factor preventing trafficked children being provided with the protection and support they are entitled to.

The programme also provided viewers with insight into the harrowing reality of child exploitation – with the victims describing coming to the UK ‘by lorry’ and living in cramped accommodation under the control of the traffickers. What’s more, this case showed the multiple forms of exploitation many child victims suffer. Watching Ban’s police interview, it was heartbreaking to hear her describe threats of sexual violence by her trafficker - sadly a common means of control over child victims. Another victim, Ten, indicated to police officers that she was romantically involved with her trafficker, highlighting a common tactic used by traffickers to groom victims. These aspects of the case illustrate the complexities of child exploitation, and highlight the need for specialist care for survivors to help them recover and rebuild their lives. As part of its campaign to reform the current support system for child victims of traffickingECPAT UK has campaigned for independent legal guardianship services to be rolled out across the UK, to provide all child victims with an individual to support them, advocate for them and help them navigate the often confusing systems they face. This kind of support has been shown to be hugely positive for victims.

Watching the episode, it was inspiring to see such commitment to prosecuting perpetrators of child trafficking in the UK, however one could not help but feel frustration at the gaps in support for child victims, and how this impacted Ban, Tran, Ten and Leesah. Child victims of trafficking have a right to justice and support, and we must do better. As prosecutor Eran Cutliffe put it, "If we don't challenge these things we're never going to get any further forward”.

Watch The Prosecutors: Modern Slavery