Victims of trafficking in the UK come from all over the world, but are often British citizens too. In 2017, of 2,118 potential victims, British nationals represented the largest group (32%), followed by children from Vietnam (17%), Albania (10%), Sudan (7%) and Eritrea (6%). Other notable countries of origin include Iraq, Afghanistan, Romania, Nigeria, Iran, Ethiopia and Romania.[1] 

Trafficking can affect children of all ages; although research indicates that most children are aged over 12 when they are identified. Both boys and girls are trafficked in the UK. In 2017, 62% of children identified as potential trafficking victims were male compared to 38% female.[2] 

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), which was set up in 2009 to identify and support victims of trafficking. 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. The Government estimates that there are 13,000 victims of modern slavery nationally, of which a quarter (more than 3,000) are believed to be children.[3]

Children are recognised as being ‘particularly vulnerable’, which can make them an easy target for traffickers.[4] Traffickers often recruit children through 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 and within the UK are already vulnerable because of poverty, discrimination, conflict or political unrest, lack of education, job scarcity or a lack of family support. Traffickers recruit them by offering opportunities of employment, education, holidays or even love and marriage. In areas of poverty around the world, 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. British national children who are trafficked within the UK often also come from poorer backgrounds and many are already vulnerable for a wide range of reasons, including family breakdown, poverty and discrimination.


Children on the move are at a particularly high risk of trafficking and exploitation, especially if they are unaccompanied or separated children (outside their country of origin and separated from both parents, or from their previous legal/customary primary caregiver). European governments’ failures to respond to children on the move with proper safeguarding strategies and ensure safe, legal routes for migration mean that these children’s vulnerability is further increased. It is estimated that at least 10,000 of these children across Europe are thought to have gone missing with many feared to be exploited and abused for sexual or labour purposes.[5]

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 areas of the world, a customary practice is for parents to hand over the care of their child to a relative or community member who may be 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.