Children may be exploited in one or more ways. Often, one form of exploitation may make the child more vulnerable to other types of abuse and exploitation; for example, a child trafficked for domestic servitude may also be sexually abused by adults in the household. 

The main types of exploitation are:

Forced child labour

This is where a child is exploited in labour for someone else’s gain. It involves victims being compelled to work long hours, often in arduous conditions, and to relinquish the majority, if not all, of their wages. It will likely interfere with their education and may also pose a risk to their health. Identity documents may be retained by the traffickers, meaning a young person cannot leave or prove their identity. In many cases, victims are subjected to verbal threats or violence to achieve compliance. Victims can be found in various industries, such as manufacturing, catering, beauty, entertainment, travel, farming and construction. Often, large numbers of individuals are housed in single dwellings.

Criminal exploitation

Child criminal exploitation (CCE) can be understood as the exploitation of a person to commit a crime, such as pick-pocketing, shoplifting, burglary, cannabis cultivation, drug trafficking and other similar activities that are subject to penalties and imply financial gain for the trafficker. ‘County lines’ is a police term often used to describe the exploitation of children by urban gangs to sell drugs to suburban areas, market and coastal towns using dedicated mobile phone lines.

Sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse that involves the grooming and/or coercion of young people under the age of 18 into sexual activity. This includes abuse of the child for the production of child abuse images or videos. Children in such exploitative situations may receive gifts, money, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol or affection as a result of performing sexual activities or others performing sexual activities on them. The child may be tricked into thinking that they are in relationship with the abuser. Sexual exploitation of children can be by adults, often in groups, or even by others in their peer group.

Domestic servitude

Domestic servitude involves the victim being exploited in private households. Their movement will often be restricted, and they will be forced to perform household tasks such as childcare and housekeeping over long hours and for little, if any, pay. Victims will usually lead very isolated lives and have little or no unsupervised freedom, but may still attend school. Their own privacy and comfort will be minimal, often sleeping on a mattress on the floor, hidden in a cellar or locked room. In rare circumstances where victims receive a wage, it will be heavily reduced, ostensibly to pay for food and accommodation. In Nigeria, domestic servitude is commonly referred to as ‘Omo-Odo’.

Benefit fraud

Benefit fraud commonly involves adults who exploit children to facilitate fraudulent claims of Child Benefit and Working Tax Credits. Such benefit payments are managed via the postal service, so face-to-face interviews with claimants are rarely conducted, making it difficult to detect fraudulent activity. HM Revenue & Customs will often seek to verify if a claim is genuine by checking if a child has been registered at a local school and/or doctors’ surgery. Child traffickers are aware of these checks and often place a child in a school for a short period of time before removing them. In some instances, where enquiries have been made in relation to the whereabouts of non-attending/withdrawn children, they have been returned to the school. In other cases, children have been registered at schools with long waiting lists. This process generates a letter that can be used to facilitate fraudulent claims.[1]

Forced begging

Children, including babies and younger children, can be used as tools for begging. Children may also be forced to beg alone, with the money handed to adults and gangs controlling them.

Organ harvesting

This is a very rare form of trafficking in the UK, although there have been reported potential cases involving children. Kidneys are in the greatest demand and are the only major organs that can be wholly transplanted with relatively few risks to the life of the donor.

Other types of exploitation

Other activities, such as illegal adoption or forced marriage, may be considered trafficking in so far as they fulfil the constitutive elements of trafficking in human beings, yet these forms are not currently counted as part of the National Referral Mechanism.

Of the children referred identified as trafficking victims in the UK in 2017, the most common exploitation types recorded were labour exploitation (48%) and sexual exploitation (26%), followed by unknown exploitation (20%) and domestic servitude (6%). There are no further details or distinctions provided within these categories so we are unable to assess the number of children exploited for criminal purposes, or the areas of labour and criminal exploitation that are most prevalent.

It is also difficult to be sure if these figures represent the reality of child trafficking in the UK. For example, domestic servitude is often harder to detect as the child is kept in a residential setting, where often the only people who know that the child is there are the family members themselves – which may mean fewer victims are being identified. Despite a recent increase in attention, there has traditionally been much less focus on children exploited for the purposes of forced labour or criminality rather than sexual exploitation.