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 that 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.” All of the UK legislation references this presumption. 

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, 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. 

According to statutory guidance, for trafficked children, “age assessments should only be carried out where there is reason to doubt that the claimant is a child. Age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of unaccompanied or trafficked children”.[1] 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 has shown that high numbers of child victims of trafficking go missing from local authority care once identified or even before trafficking is formally identified. 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. ECPAT UK’s research also identified a worrying lack of consistency in the way in which local authorities identify and record risk of trafficking and exploitation. These inconsistencies have allowed safeguarding issues to be sidelined and, in some instances, cast aside, leading to further harm to the child. It also means that the number of trafficked and unaccompanied children going missing is probably far higher.

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 in exploitation. This is particularly the case for Vietnamese children who are exploited for the cultivation of cannabis in farms across the UK, and children who are exploited in ‘county lines’ drug trafficking. 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’s training courses aim to reduce the number 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. It states that: “If the defendant is a child victim of trafficking/slavery, the extent to which the crime alleged against the child was consequent on and integral to his/her being a victim of trafficking/slavery must be considered. In some cases the criminal offence is a manifestation of the exploitation.”[2] Despite this, as well as provisions in law to counter criminalisation, convictions still take place and young people’s suffering continues.

Regularising their immigration status

Foreign national children who are identified as victims of trafficking often experience significant challenges if they want to regularise their immigration status and remain in the UK as adults. Under the current system, a child from outside the European Union, having claimed asylum, is normally given what is known as UASC leave. This is limited leave to remain in the UK until the age of 17.5 or 30 months’ leave (whichever is shorter), if there are no safe reception arrangements. Many children will then apply for further leave to remain, however, these applications are often refused and they then face removal directions, returning them to countries where they often have few connections and face serious risk of re-trafficking. In the case of EU nationals, there is often confusion about their right to remain in the UK and concerns have been raised about returning these children to situations where there has not been a sufficient assessment of ongoing risk.

Children who are victims of modern slavery need long-term support and protection to stay safe and recover from their abuse. Many child victims of trafficking reaching this age will have lived in the UK for a long time, perhaps even most of their life, and will have had to overcome considerable barriers in order to rebuild their lives, reclaim their childhoods, establish an education, gain work and make personal connections here. In these cases they may have little personal connection with their country of origin and may be at risk of being re-trafficked if they are returned. The current system therefore undermines the ability of the child, or those supporting the child, to properly plan for that child’s protection and recovery.