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 Government 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 should be made with or without the child’s consent, however, it is best practice to explain the process to the child. 

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. An ECPAT UK survey found that only 6% of frontline professionals felt that there was good awareness of the NRM amongst those professionals working directly with children.[1] Decisions under this process are not made by child protection experts but instead by Home Office officials, far removed from the child and often lacking child-specific knowledge. The decision-making process is often poorly made and subject to lengthy and unnecessary delays. A positive decision does not lead to any additional or specialist support, unlike for adults. 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. 

ECPAT UK's survey of frontline professionals showed that there is a widespread perception that the NRM for children needs to be reformed. More than half of respondents believed that the current NRM process needs to be revised and only 7% believed the system should remain as it is.[2] Most respondents felt that the system should be changed to become closer to the children affected, more multi-agency and part of the existing child protection system, as well as provide better specialist support for those who have been trafficked. This echoes ECPAT UK’s campaign to embed the NRM within multi-agency child protection systems, and provide guaranteed specialist support for children affected.

Early and robust identification of child victims of trafficking is essential for the development of trust, which enables the child to disclose their experiences. This 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.

Guidance for professionals

It is for this reason that ECPAT UK has developed training for professionals working with children – to improve awareness of trafficking indicators and knowledge about how to safeguard victims. The latest statutory guidance for practitioners on Care of unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery states that: “All those involved in the care of unaccompanied children and child victims of modern slavery should be able to recognise and understand the particular issues likely to be faced by these children. This includes recognising the indicators of trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour as a child’s previous history or current experience of being a victim of modern slavery might not be apparent to begin with.”[3] There is also statutory guidance on children who go missing that is highly relevant for safeguarding child trafficking victims.[4] At the moment there is insufficient mandatory training for frontline police officers, social workers, health professionals or education professionals on child trafficking in the UK.

Where trafficking is suspected, a Section 47 inquiry should be initiated in order to establish the risk to the child and introduce measures to keep them safe. In practice, once a child has been identified as a possible victim of trafficking, relevant information should be referred to the police immediately because a crime may have taken place. Research shows that this is often not the case and information simply is not shared between agencies, often placing the child at further risk of harm.

See Question 7 for further guidance on working with child victims of trafficking. ECPAT UK has an online resources hub for practitioners to view guidance and best practice.