Following the recent Windrush scandal, ECPAT UK’s Policy and Campaigns Officer, Catherine Baker, blogs about the impact of the UK's hostile immigration environment on child victims of trafficking and children at risk of exploitation.

The Windrush scandal has given shocking exposure to the some of the ramifications of the UK Government’s current policy on immigration. And among those most affected are child victims of modern slavery, where such policies aimed at deterring irregular migration are actually perpetuating their precariousness to exploitation and trafficking. 

One way in which this happens is through the lack of opportunities for child victims of trafficking to regularise their status. The case of ‘Stephen’, which ECPAT UK has supported, highlights the impact of this. As a 10-year-old orphan, Stephen was picked up by traffickers in Vietnam, forced to take a torturous journey through Russia, across Europe and into the UK in a lorry via Calais, then forced to suffer five years of exploitation growing cannabis around the UK. Now having been resident here for several years, enabling him to start to recover and rebuild his life within a loving foster family, his asylum claim was refused. This means he faces the possibility of being returned to Vietnam, where he has no family or connections, and where he fears the risk of further exploitation.

This is because there is no specific grant of leave for child victims of trafficking. Stephen is among many unaccompanied children in the UK who on turning 17 ½, unless they have regularised their immigration status, face an abrupt end to support provision, and will often be returned to their country of origin. Trafficking victims have a particularly hard time getting refugee status, as the refugee protection system is designed around membership of a certain social group and not all trafficking victims’ experiences fit this model. In addition, child victims of modern slavery often find it difficult to disclose the full extent of their exploitation, often presenting as inconsistent or not ‘credible’ in a system that actively looks for discrepancies in an applicant’s story. Without the ability to regularise their status, these young people are often forced into situations of uncertainty and precariousness, and many go missing from the care system to avoid being returned, and can end up once again in exploitative situations.

The logic of the hostile immigration environment also makes it more difficult for those in exploitation to seek help. Many fear seeking assistance from public services because of their fears of being picked up by immigration officials and being arrested, detained or sent home. These fears play into the hands of the traffickers, who often reinforce these fears as an additional means of control over the child, especially in cases where the child is in ‘debt bondage’ and they or their family owes money to the trafficker. Public services, such as police and healthcare, are often those most likely to detect signs of exploitation and enable that child to be brought to safety. But with the NHS now sharing patient data with immigration enforcement, and with police piloting sharing the biometric data of child migrants with immigration enforcement, children’s fears of seeking help from public services will only be exacerbated.

Furthermore, the UK Government’s position on immigration has arguably increased the precariousness of children to modern slavery outside its borders. Children in Calais, many of whom have a right to be in the UK, continue to be left without options in deteriorating conditions. A Parliamentary inquiry in 2017 found that the chaotic handling of cases under the Dubs amendment and the continuing lack of options for children plays into the hands of traffickers.

If we are to meet the UK Government’s stated aim of ending modern slavery and ridding ‘our world of this barbaric evil’, children should be the highest priority. Child victims must given a chance to have a stable future, free from exploitation, and this means enabling them to regularise their immigration status to allow them to have stability and recover. There must also be a strict separation of immigration enforcement from all public services, so that children can seek help in safety. Ultimately, there must be safe, legal routes for vulnerable children to come to the UK and not be abandoned in precarious situations where trafficking risks are high. If not, the UK Government will undermine its positive steps taken towards ending modern slavery by prioritising an immigration policy that perpetuates the vulnerability of its youngest victims.

Catherine Baker is Policy and Campaigns Officer at ECPAT UK