Much less is known about the traffickers than their victims. The main reason children are trafficked is for financial gain, but some might gain in other ways. For those trafficked from abroad, this can include payment from or to the child’s parents or other adults who facilitate their journey, 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 may 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. 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. Some are primarily UK or regionally based. 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 2017-18 in England and Wales, 239 suspects were charged with modern slavery offences and 185 people were convicted under the Modern Slavery Act.[1] In 2016-17 in Scotland, there were no convictions overall, with 25 cases ongoing and 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 require consent from the child to notify the government body 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 differently. The Act requires the Lord Advocate to issue guidance on the prosecution of 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. 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 unaccompanied and separated children. This scheme is currently operational in Wales and certain parts of England, however the timeframe for full, national rollout of the scheme is unclear.

How do traffickers control their victims?

Traffickers control their victims in a number of 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 or the language of the trafficker and any people surrounding them. 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 incorrectly depicting them as adults. Traffickers may 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 can 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.

Traffickers are also known to use children’s precarious immigration status to keep them in exploitation and to prevent them from coming forward to public authorities. Traffickers exploit children’s fear of removal from the UK, threatening that they will report them to the police and immigration control if they report their exploitation to the authorities.

In some cases, children may be controlled through spiritual and/or institutional abuse. These forms of control are characterised by systematic patterns of coercive behaviour regarding a person’s systems of belief. Some of the characteristics may be scripture or belief misused to control behaviour, threats of negative spiritual consequences and/or the idea that a spiritual leader is “called” by God to a position, and therefore cannot be questioned. All belief systems can be manipulated to exercise control and abuse. The long-term impact of such abuse can be complex and devastating for children.

[1] https://www.cps.gov.uk/modernslavery.

[2] Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (2017), Annual report 2016-17. London.