Victims of trafficking in the UK come from all over the world, but can be British citizens too. In 2013, the top 10 countries of origin for child victims were: UK, Vietnam, Slovakia, Romania, Nigeria, Albania, Thailand, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, since 2009 there have been children identified from more than 50 countries.

Trafficking can affect children of all ages; although research indicates that most children are aged over 12 when they are identified. Statistics for 2013 show that a majority of children were between the ages of 13 and 18 when they were identified, with 15% under 12 years old. Others were identified only when they had become adults or their age was unknown. Generally, girls are more likely to be trafficked to the UK than boys, but the number of males is known to be on the increase.

The available statistics on child trafficking are not regarded as indicative of the true scale of the problem in the UK. The government collects data on suspected child victims of trafficking through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). However, awareness of the NRM is low among frontline practitioners, and ECPAT UK understands that hundreds of children each year are not referred and not formally identified. In a wider piece of research, the UK Human Trafficking Centre, a multi-agency organisation that provides central expertise and coordination on the UK’s response to human trafficking, identified nearly 602 child victims in 2013 alone. Yet, this is still regarded as a large underestimation of the actual number of children trafficked into, within and out of the UK.

Children are innately vulnerable, which can make them an easy target for traffickers. Traffickers recruit children by false promises of work and by exploiting children and their families’ desire for a better life. Often, families are aware of the initial arrangements for another adult to look after their child, but they may lose contact with the child or have no knowledge of the exploitation that occurs.

The majority of children trafficked to the UK are already vulnerable because of poverty, educational inequality, job scarcity or a lack of family support. Traffickers recruit them by offering opportunities of employment, education or even love and marriage, elsewhere in the world. In areas of poverty, many children feel the burden of responsibility to contribute to their family’s income. While sometimes a family may be aware of the risks of sending their child abroad or paying an agent, they may nonetheless see it as a survival strategy that offers the hope of a better life for both the child and the family. 

Traditional practices, such as migration and private fostering, can also make children vulnerable to trafficking. In some countries, children moving unaccompanied at a young age is part of a deep-rooted socialisation process in which it is expected that a child will leave home and work elsewhere to provide for their family. In some regions of the world, for example in parts of West Africa, a customary practice is for parents to hand over the care of their child to a relative or community member who is seen as better able to provide for the child. Traffickers exploit such practices, with children being brought to the UK and other countries in order to be domestic servants or for benefit fraud, rather than to receive education.

Families have been known to sell their children, and children have reported the involvement of a family member who knowingly passes them on to someone else to abuse or exploit them. Therefore, the possible role of a family in the trafficking must be established before any attempt is made to reunite a child with them.