8th November 2019

Following the loss of 39 lives in a lorry in Essex, ECPAT UK’s Senior Campaigns and Parliamentary Officer, Catherine Baker, reflects on the impact of the UK's hostile environment on people migrating to the UK, and how migrants' vulnerability doesn't end upon arrival in the UK. 

The devastating news of 39 people found dead in a lorry in Essex has rightly sent shockwaves across the UK and highlighted the current dangers faced by people trying to cross the UK border. Many of the victims were children and young people, who experience additional vulnerabilities in migration due to their age.

Whilst there is not at this point any clear evidence that the victims were trafficked, it is well-evidenced that strict border policies and lack of safe, legal routes to migrate can create and exacerbate the risks of trafficking in migration. ECPAT UK’s report Precarious Journeys highlighted the particular vulnerabilities faced by Vietnamese migrants on their journeys to the UK. It showed that strong border control measures across Europe mean that Vietnamese migrants are forced to take extremely long and dangerous routes, exposing them to traffickers who exploit their vulnerability, with children particularly vulnerable.

It also revealed that precariousness does not end at the point of destination. Rigid policies to control immigration, growing anti-immigration rhetoric and difficulty securing immigration status means that Vietnamese people migrating irregularly are often forced into informal and exploitative work across Europe, including in the UK.

In our work to support children and young people who have been trafficked here in the UK, many of whom have arrived in the UK in the back of lorries, and we see time and time again that their lives continue to feature uncertainty, trauma and precariousness, rather than stability and a route to recovery after their abuse.

Tuyen*, 15, was found by police during a raid on a nail bar. The police officer dialled a phone interpretation service to obtain basic information from her while waiting for a social worker to arrive. Through the interpreter, Tuyen told the officer that she was just visiting a friend at the property and did not live there. This was the exact story she had been told to say if she ever came across the police. The officer diligently took notes.

The police officer referred Tuyen into the national mechanism set up to determine whether individuals are victims of trafficking, including the information that Tuyen shared through the interpreter. Six months later, after she felt safe with her foster carers, Tuyen disclosed the true extent of the abuse she had endured.

After over a year of waiting, she arrived home from college to find the Home Office had refused her claim, insisting she was lying about everything due to the contradictory information provided by the officer in the first referral. Now she was being forced to return to Vietnam. Another year has passed and she’s still waiting for her court hearing and is unable to plan for her future as it is all so uncertain.

This week we’ve seen the case of Samet gain public attention. Like Tuyen, Samet is a victim of child trafficking who arrived in Bristol on the back of a lorry aged 15. Having restarted his life with a foster family in the UK, his asylum applications have been rejected, leaving him facing the prospect of return to Albania where he is at risk of re-trafficking and further harm from those who previously targeted him.

Sadly, far from being the exception, we’ve seen stories like Tuyen and Samet’s countless times over the years, where transitioning to adulthood creates a terrifying cliff-edge for young people. Samet suffers from PTSD and is desperate to stay in the UK and become a carpenter. How can he recover from abuse with this threat hanging over him?

This long term uncertainty is partly a result of a lack of routes to securing immigration status for child victims of trafficking. There is no grant of leave to remain in the UK provided specifically for these children. Statistics have shown that of the options they have to secure their immigration status, child victims of trafficking are likely to be refused, leaving them without any way to remain in the UK if they need to. Some Vietnamese children can find it particularly difficult to disclose the full extent of their exploitation and thus fail to appear as ‘credible’ to asylum decision makers after taking long, confusing and traumatic journeys and when they may still be subject to debt bondage by traffickers.

Without secure, long term options for children, this leaves them vulnerable to a variety of further risks while they are here in the UK. Some children are forced into destitution after being discharged from care services. Consistently high numbers of child victims of trafficking and unaccompanied children go missing from care. Research showed that a cause of unaccompanied children going missing from is a fear of detention and forced removal. We know that going missing can be a sign that children have been forced into precarious and exploitative work, or brought back under the control of those who have previously exploited them. Victims’ relationships with traffickers do not often simply end when contact is made with authorities - the pull back into exploitation can be very strong if the alternatives are destitution, detention or return to further harm.

Moreover, a hostile environment for those in the UK without regular immigration status makes children and young people still trapped in exploitative situations fear coming forwards to authorities, leaving them undetected and unsupported. Ongoing precariousness for these young people comes as a result of government policy designed to keep people in a state of fear of state structures and officials.

As ECPAT UK’s stable futures campaign highlights, there is a desperate need for young victims of trafficking to be provided with the stability they need to recover, plan for their future and avoid being drawn back into exploitation. This requires putting in place measures to make unaccompanied and trafficked children’s best interests at the heart of all decision-making that affects their lives, including on immigration, and ensuring that they are adequately supported by an independent guardian as soon as they are detected.

Ultimately, it means an approach based on safeguarding, not policing or restrictions on immigration, as a means of reducing migrants’ vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation. Until then, young migrants will continue to face not only precarious journeys but precarious futures.

*Name and some identifiable details changed to protect the young person’s identity