One of the biggest concerns around child trafficking is that children are not identified early enough, or even at all, meaning their exploitation and abuse often goes undetected for years. However, once a child is identified as a suspected victim of trafficking, there are other challenges that must be overcome.

Firstly, many children trafficked into and out of the UK have no identity documents or are using false documents. This means determining the child’s exact age is very difficult.

Age assessments

Article 10 of the European Convention enshrines the concept of ‘benefit of the doubt’ for the age of suspected victims of trafficking. It states that: “When the age of the victim is uncertain and there are reasons to believe that the victim is a child, he or she shall be presumed to be a child and shall be accorded special protection measures pending verification of his/her age.” What Challenges Do Child Victims Face Once Identified? 29 Victims of trafficking encounter various issues relating to their age: some have been in the UK for long periods of time and do not know how old they are, and some are told to say they are adults in order to cross borders more easily and to attract less attention. These children will often adhere to the story given to them by their trafficker. Some children may not understand the importance placed on age as in their country of origin it is not significant and/ or not recorded officially. It is important to remember that many of these children, who have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused, may well be suffering from a range of mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and are highly vulnerable.

Research claims there is often an over-reliance on physical appearance and credibility as indicators of age. This fails to take into account factors such as variation among cultures and ethnicities. It can also add to the child’s sense of not being believed.

The importance of assessing age accurately and appropriately cannot be underestimated. If a child is assessed to be an adult, the treatment and support they receive will be vastly different. ECPAT UK is aware that many children are trafficked on adult documents so that they pass through the border more easily. In some instances, officials accept the given age on the document, even if they acknowledge the document is false.

Missing children

Research by ECPAT UK shows that many victims of trafficking go missing from local authority care once identified. Our research found that about 1/3 of victims go missing from care, often to never be found again. There are no commonly agreed safety and protection standards across the UK for the placement of children who are suspected or known to be trafficked. This inconsistency has allowed safeguarding issues to be sidelined and, in some instances, cast aside, leading to further harm to the child.

Criminalisation of child victims

Despite being the victims of crime themselves, many children are unjustly charged and convicted for offences they are forced to commit while being exploited. This is particularly the case for Vietnamese children who are forced to cultivate cannabis in cannabis farms across the UK. Other children are prosecuted for document offences or for crimes, such as theft or begging, despite being forced into the activities and not benefiting financially from the crimes themselves. At the initial point of contact, children may be seen as criminals, and indicators of trafficking are not recognised and/or acted upon, with often adverse consequences. ECPAT UK training aims to reduce the numbers of children who are treated in this way.

The Crown Prosecution Service has issued guidance on the non-prosecution of victims of trafficking in line with European legislation on the issue. Despite this, convictions still take place and young people’s suffering continues. Tackling the criminalisation of victims should be an immediate priority for the UK Government and relevant agencies.