Early identification of children is critical, but it is not an easy task. Child victims are unlikely to give direct disclosures, and their accounts may be confused and sometimes contradictory – often because they are traumatised, scared of telling the truth or have been coached into telling a story. Child victims of trafficking in the UK come to the notice of the authorities through a wide range of sources, including the health, legal, education, welfare, police and immigration sectors, together with NGOs and the wider public.

In 2009, as a result of the UK ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, a system for formal identification of child and adult victims was introduced, called the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). It is a framework for identifying victims of trafficking and ensuring they receive the appropriate protection and support. The NRM is also the mechanism through which the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) collects data about victims.

This information aims to help build a clearer picture about the scope of human trafficking in the UK. In the same way as any child protection referral, the referral will be made with or without the child’s consent.

ECPAT UK has criticised the way the NRM operates for children. Awareness of the NRM among frontline workers is very low, which often means children are not referred, obscuring the reliability of statistics to give an accurate picture of the scale of the problem. There are also serious concerns about the way decisions on victim status are made for children, particularly as decisions involving non-EU children, or where immigration is an issue, are made by the Home Office. The Home Office is primarily tasked with protecting the UK’s borders and has been criticised widely for operating with a ‘culture of disbelief’ when processing cases. ECPAT UK has also raised the issue of a lack of child-specific knowledge with the Home Office and the UK Human Trafficking Centre. There is no formal appeals process in the NRM, however, a decision can be informally challenged if new evidence is presented or the case can be taken to a Judicial Review.

Early and robust identification of child victims of trafficking is essential for trust to be developed to enable the child to disclose their experiences, which then enables practitioners to safeguard the child effectively and for evidence to be gathered for a criminal investigation.

The reaction of practitioners to a suspected trafficked child will have an important bearing on the child’s perception of UK authorities. Many children are not believed when they do disclose their experiences, often because their accounts seem too horrific. Discrepancies in accounts can lead to accusations that the child has made up the story in order to improve a potential claim for asylum in the UK. However, it is paramount to document and act on all information given by the child, particularly any disclosure of abuse/ exploitation.