Child trafficking is defined as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt” of a child for the purpose of exploitation. This definition comes from the United Nations Palermo Protocol, which the UK and the majority of countries around the world have adopted, making it the internationally accepted definition of human trafficking. A child is defined by the Palermo Protocol and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as any person under the age of 18. In the UK, trafficking is regarded as a form of modern slavery. 

The trafficking of children is a process comprised of two distinct stages: the Act and the Purpose. This is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or reception of persons, including the exchange or transfer of control over those persons ... for the purpose of exploitation.” The definition of child trafficking differs slightly from that of adults, which requires an extra stage for trafficking to be present – that of the Means, “of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person”. The Means stage is not required for the definition of child trafficking. This is not to say that this stage does not occur for child victims, but the definition recognises that a child cannot give informed consent to his or her own exploitation, even if he or she agrees to travel or understands what has happened. 

Essentially, child trafficking is child abuse and should be treated within a child protection context. It is also a crime and abuse of an individual’s human rights. 

Trafficking can occur across international borders (i.e. into and out of the UK) but also within borders. The latter is commonly known as ‘internal trafficking’. This means that children who are moved around the UK for the purposes of exploitation, whether they are children from abroad or citizen children, can be considered victims of trafficking. Many children may have been trafficked to other countries prior to arriving in the UK. 

It is estimated that 5.5 million children are trafficked worldwide each year.[1] Children account for about a third of all trafficking victims discovered in the UK,[2] and the global child trafficking market is valued at over $12 billion a year.[3]

There is sometimes confusion between trafficking and people smuggling, yet in reality there is a clear distinction. Smuggling involves the movement of people from one place to another, sometimes for a large fee, but the transaction between the person and the smuggler ends on arrival at their destination. Moreover, smuggling always crosses international borders, but trafficking can also be within a country. What makes the matter particularly confusing is that the individual may think they are being smuggled by paying an agent to enable them to travel overseas. However, the agent may deceive the person and seek to exploit them in addition to receiving the fee to arrange travel. This then becomes human trafficking. 

Children are brought to the UK in a variety of ways – by air, boat, rail and land – which means there needs to be awareness in all ports across the UK, even smaller ones. Children may have been abused en route to the UK or have been forced to undergo a long and traumatic journey before arriving in the UK. Practitioners working with children must be mindful of this, even if initially there is no immediate evidence of trauma.