Much less is known about the traffickers than their victims. The main reason children are trafficked is for financial gain. For those trafficked from abroad, this can include payment from or to the child’s parents and can place the child in debt bondage to the traffickers. Commonly, the trafficker receives payment from those wanting to exploit the child once he or she is in the UK. 

Traffickers frequently operate as part of an organised crime network in which many ‘agents’ or ‘facilitators’ play a role in enabling trafficking within the UK and often across countries. Some border officials have been known to accept bribes to allow victims to enter a country. Some organised crime groups are very complex and well organised, trafficking a number of victims in many countries. However, sometimes a child is trafficked within a familial setting or a much smaller group of individuals as a ‘one-off’ occurrence.

The number of people who have been prosecuted for human trafficking is low compared to the number of victims identified, although the numbers are slowly increasing. In 2017, in England and Wales, there were 15 convictions under the Modern Slavery Act[1]. In 2016-17 in Scotland, there were no convictions overall, with 25 cases ongoing. In Northern Ireland, four were convicted for trafficking offences during this period.[2] 

In addition to the international legal instruments, in the UK there are three separate pieces of anti-trafficking legislation that cover acts committed against children – the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (England and Wales), the Human Trafficking (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. 

Criminal offences of human trafficking, slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour are included in all three of the Acts, although there is no separate offence for exploiting a child. A child is defined in all of the Acts as any person under the age of 18 years. 

All three Acts include a duty on certain public authorities to notify a particular Government body when they come across a potential victim. The authorities do not have to have consent to notify in children’s cases. The legislation also created new civil orders aimed at preventing future trafficking and exploitation.

In all three laws there is a provision for the non-criminalisation of victims, including children. In the Modern Slavery Act and Northern Ireland Act, there is a statutory defence for victims who are prosecuted for crimes they were compelled to commit as a direct result of their trafficking. In Scotland, the law works slightly differently. The Act provides that the Lord Advocate issues guidance on the prosecution of victims to be used in cases of potential victims, and includes that individuals must be referred to the National Lead Prosecutor who decides whether or not to prosecute. 

All three Acts also provide for a child guardian scheme, or equivalent, to support, advise and guide children who have been trafficked or who are at risk of being trafficked and help them navigate complex systems such as children's services, criminal justice and immigration. The broadest and most detailed model for guardianship is found in the Northern Ireland Act. At the time of writing, it is understood that an NGO has been awarded the contract to run the national guardianship service but that this is not yet operational. The non-statutory guardianship scheme in Scotland includes provision for all unaccompanied and separated children within its remit. In England and Wales, however, the legislation provides for Independent Child Trafficking Advocate (ICTAs) but only for those identified as potential victims of trafficking, rather than all separated children. This is only operational in three areas at present: Wales, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and Greater Manchester.

How do traffickers control their victims?

Traffickers control their victims in a number of other ways, such as direct violence or threats of violence – of a physical and/or sexual nature – against both the child and his or her family. Some traffickers abduct or kidnap their victims, but frequently children and their families are deceived into believing the child will gain education or work, such as in a restaurant or as a domestic worker. Children may be groomed into a relationship of trust with the trafficker, such as through giving the child attention or buying them gifts. Grooming can occur both online and in person. Use of sexual images may also be used vindictively to exploit a child.

Traffickers often keep the child isolated, which may be made easier if the child is unable to speak English. The child may be locked up and deprived of their own money. Often children are told that they and their family owe large amounts of money and they must work to pay this off; sometimes these sums are impossibly large. For example, a child is told they owe £30,000 but is only given £5 a week. This is commonly defined as debt bondage. 

The majority of children trafficked from abroad enter the UK without identity documents or on false documents in someone else’s name, often depicting them as adults incorrectly. Often the traffickers will seek to control the child by removing their documents and threatening that the child will be deported if he or she tries to escape. In addition, the creation of a false identity can give the trafficker direct control over every aspect of the child’s life, particularly if they claim to be a parent or family member. Children are often isolated once they are in the UK and traffickers exploit their lack of connections and poor understanding of the system that could enable them to get help. Traffickers may actively seek to undermine their trust and confidence in the authorities. Traffickers often control children by providing them with a sense of belonging.

In some cases, particularly from parts of Africa, voodoo, witchcraft or juju (a traditional belief) is used to frighten the children, who are told they or their families may die if they speak about what is happening to them. The long-term impact of such practices can be complex and devastating for children.