Thursday, 26th November 2020

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Palermo Protocol – the world’s first legally binding instrument with an agreed definition on human trafficking. ECPAT UK’s Sinead Geoghegan blogs about child trafficking in the UK 20 years on and what we need to do to prevent trafficking and support victims. 

The Palermo Protocol is important because it provides a shared legal basis for laws criminalising trafficking in different countries – helping different nations to cooperate with each other in addressing crimes that often transcend national borders. This has been hugely helpful not only in bringing offenders to justice but also in defining and identifying exploitation and its victims. From a child rights perspective, this has enabled us to push for better identification and protection of children who are exploited as well as specialised support.

However, the lack of attention to its intention to prevent trafficking has resulted in an overemphasis on a criminal justice and law enforcement response to trafficking, which limits the Protocol’s effectiveness and the rights of victims to protection, support and redress. Additionally, it loses sight of the causes of exploitation, including global inequality and a lack of safe and legal migration routes, as well as what is needed to reduce vulnerability. We can think of this approach as putting a plaster on a gunshot wound – it does very little to tackle the source of the pain.

This focus has often resulted in harm: criminalisation of victims themselves including children, police monitoring and targeting of specific communities, harsh border policies and hostile immigration systems which leave victims afraid to seek help from authorities for fear of criminalisation, detention and unsafe returns to their country of origin.

How can we do better?

ECPAT UK takes a rights-based approach to our work with and on behalf of children. This means our approach to the issue of child trafficking is to see it as a violation of a child’s human rights. In this way, we can see the child as a person with agency rather than simply a helpless victim. We acknowledge the rights of all children to protection, care, support and participation in defining their own lives. Ultimately, children have a right to be safe and meet their full potential.

When we look at child trafficking from this perspective, it’s impossible to support criminalising children for being exploited,  think of any child seeking protection abroad as ‘illegal’  or support unsafe returns to countries where they face significant risk. Instead, we must treat child trafficking as child abuse that requires a child protection response, and look at each child’s long term best interests as the primary consideration in all decision about their future – in line with their universal human rights.

What’s more, we must listen to what children actually want and need, rather than making assumptions or silencing them. It’s on this basis that ECPAT UK developed its youth programme, which provides a space for young people to support each other, direct our work and advocate for themselves and their peers.

Creating stable futures

Listening to young people’s concerns and seeing the main obstacles they face to moving on with their lives, we launched our stable futures campaign. Reflecting the common experience of uncertainty they felt about the future due to their status as migrants in a hostile immigration system, our campaign calls for all trafficked children to have leave to remain in the UK if it’s in their best interests.

As our recent snapshot report showed, most victims of child trafficking are being left in immigration limbo – further harmed in a hostile system and given forms of immigration leave that do not meet our obligations to children. This not only violates children’s rights and takes away their future, but it makes them vulnerable to going missing - under the radar from authorities and being re-trafficked. It also goes against article 7 of the Protocol and is not only counterproductive to tackling trafficking but leaving child migrants vulnerable is what traffickers thrive on.

There are also gaps in provision of support and assistance for child victims of trafficking, outlined in article 6 of the Protocol. A decade of austerity policies has resulted in severely underfunded local authorities that struggle to provide the specialist support trafficked children need. Support for trafficked children was further reduced in the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, when new temporary legislation was introduced. Statutory Instrument 445 weakened or removed 65 legal protections for children in the care system – including many victims of child trafficking.

Trafficked children need more care during this difficult time, not less – that’s why ECPAT UK continues to call for independent legal guardians to be provided to all trafficked children in England and Wales to help keep them safe. Provision of guardians for trafficked children has been enshrined in the Modern Slavery Act for more than 5 years, but still not fully rolled out to children across England and Wales. Until all trafficked children have the support they need to recover and an immigration status that provides stability in their lives, child trafficking will continue to blight our society. That’s why 20 years on from the Palermo Protocol, we’re asking you to join us in calling on the government to provide all trafficked children with stable futures.