Thursday, 18th March 2021

The Home Office has today released official statistics showing more children than ever before were identified as potential victims of trafficking in 2020. ECPAT UK is concerned that more children than ever need specialist support while resourcing for this support continues to fall, responses to child victims are inconsistent across the country and children face unnecessary delays to decisions about their cases.

The statistics from the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s official system for identifying victims of trafficking and modern slavery – show that 4,946 potential victims were exploited as children, an almost 10% increase on the previous year.

Children also made up a larger proportion of all potential victims identified than in previous years, with 47% of all individuals identified saying they had been exploited as children. This follows data from last Spring showing more children than adults were identified as potential victims for the first time, when the UK was under strict social restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As in the final quarter of 2019, when the government began categorising criminal exploitation as a distinct exploitation type, criminal exploitation was the most prevalent exploitation type among children - with 2,544 children identified as potential victims. 93% of these children were boys – an increase on the proportion of boys identified as potential victims of criminal exploitation in 2019.

Across all exploitation types, 78% of children identified as potential victims were boys – again, an increase in the number of male victims compared to figures for 2019. Increased understanding of child criminal exploitation is likely to be a significant driver of the higher number of UK national boys identified, as professionals and institutions begin to recognise young males involved in drug supply and other criminal activity as victims rather than treating them as offenders.

In line with previous years, the vast majority of children were from the UK, with 2,874 UK national children identified as potential victims. However, significant numbers of non-UK national children were also identified, with most coming from Vietnam (246 children), Sudan (163 children), Albania (160 children), Romania (138 children) and Eritrea (132 children). Children from Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Iran also made up significant numbers of those identified.

However, in 2020 the numbers of potential victims identified decreased among children from Albania, Eritrea and Sudan compared with the numbers identified in 2019.

Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK, said:

“The government must urgently address this child protection crisis and put children at the heart of its response to the pandemic. 2020 was a difficult year and the rise in referrals of children to the NRM should concern us all. It is clear that many more children were at risk last year due to the loss of vital support which increased their vulnerability to further exploitation and harm.

“It’s highly worrying that the numbers of children identified as potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery continue to rise year-on-year, and that the proportion of total victims made up by children is also rising. This is happening in parallel to decreased funding for local authorities and other frontline services that provide essential support for child victims.

“The government must guarantee adequate resources to safeguard and protect children, and to help them recover from the trauma of exploitation and have the stable futures they are entitled to.”

Specialist, long term support needed

ECPAT UK has long called for specialist support to be provided to children identified as victims of trafficking by the NRM. In 2018 we handed a petition with the support of 125,000 people to Downing Street.

Our current stable futures campaign builds on this, calling on the government to provide guardians for all children identified as potential victims of trafficking as well as all unaccompanied children, and provide a grant of leave for those with immigration concerns that would provide a ‘durable solution’ in line with international legal standards.


Press contact

Sinead Geoghegan, Communications and Media Manager, ECPAT UK, [email protected], 07402 113 985