Victims of trafficking in the UK come from all over the world, but are often British citizens too. In 2018, of 3,137 potential victims identified, British children represented the largest group (45%), followed by children from Vietnam (10%), Sudan (7%), Albania (7%), and Eritrea (7%).[1] Other notable countries of origin include Romania, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Iran and Ethiopia.[2] 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 into and within the UK. In 2018, 72% of children identified as potential victims of trafficking were male compared to 28% of victims who were female.[3]

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 into this system, meaning they are not formally identified as victims. The available statistics on child trafficking are therefore not regarded as indicative of the true scale of the problem in the UK.

Children are recognised as being ‘particularly vulnerable’,[4] which can make them an easy target for traffickers. Traffickers often recruit children with 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 a family may sometimes 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. Children growing up in the UK may be more at risk of exploitation when they have experienced other forms of abuse, are disabled, in care and/or living in poverty.

Children on the move are at a particularly high risk of exploitation, especially if they are unaccompanied children or separated from their immediate family or carers. European governments’ failures to respond to children on the move with proper safeguarding strategies and 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 case of a child being trafficked must be established before any attempt is made to reunite a child with them.

[1] http://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/publications/national-referral-mechanism-statistics/2018-nrm-statistics.

[2] http://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/publications/national-referral-mechanism-statistics/2018-nrm-statistics.

[3] http://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/publications/national-referral-mechanism-statistics/2018-nrm-statistics.

[4] Directive 2011/36/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 April 2011 on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims, and replacing Council Framework Decision 2002/629/.

[5] Townsend, M, (2016) ‘10,000 refugee children are missing, says Europol’, The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/30/fears-for-missing-child-refugees.