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:

Labour exploitation

This is where a child is exploited in labour for someone else’s gain. It may involve 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 actual violence to achieve compliance. Particular industries are often represented in known cases of forced labour in the UK, such as manufacturing, catering, beauty, entertainment, agriculture 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 possession of false identity documents, pick-pocketing, shoplifting, burglary, cannabis cultivation, electricity theft, drug transportation and distribution. ‘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’.

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, where children are exploited for the purposes of using, buying, selling, or otherwise commodifying parts of their bodies. There have been several reported potential cases involving children in the past few years. Cases of organ harvesting have increased in areas with protracted humanitarian crises, such as in Syria, which may affect children who arrive in the UK to seek protection.

Other types of exploitation

Other activities, such as illegal adoption, financial fraud or forced marriage, may also be considered trafficking when the child is also a victim of exploitation.

Of the children identified as potential trafficking victims in the UK in 2018, the most common exploitation types recorded were labour exploitation (63%) and sexual exploitation (20%), followed by unknown exploitation (13%), domestic servitude (3%) and organ harvesting (<1%).9 No further details or distinctions are provided within these categories, so we are unable to assess the number of children exploited for criminal purposes, or which areas of labour and criminal exploitation were most prevalent.

It is also difficult to ascertain whether 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 itself – which may mean fewer victims are being identified.