One of the biggest concerns around child trafficking is that children are not identified early enough, or even at all, meaning their exploitation and abuse often goes undetected for years. However, once a child is identified as a suspected victim of trafficking, there are many other challenges that must be overcome.

Age assessments

Article 10 of the European Convention enshrines the concept of ‘benefit of the doubt’ regarding the age of suspected victims of trafficking. It states that “[w]hen the age of the victim is uncertain and there are reasons to believe that the victim is a child, he or she shall be presumed to be a child and shall be accorded special protection measures pending verification of his/her age.” All of the UK legislation on trafficking and modern slavery references this presumption.

Child victims of trafficking encounter various issues relating to their age: some have been in the UK for long periods of time, may not have official identity documents or know their exact age. Some are instructed to say they are adults in order to cross borders more easily and to attract less attention. These children will often adhere to the story given to them by their trafficker. Some children may not understand the importance placed on age as in their country of origin it is not significant and/or not recorded officially. It is important to remember that many of these children, who have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused, may well be suffering from a range of mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and are highly vulnerable.

Research claims there is often an over-reliance on physical appearance and credibility as indicators of age. This fails to take into account factors such as variation among cultures and ethnicities. It can also add to the child’s sense of not being believed.

According to statutory guidance, for trafficked children, “age assessments should only be carried out where there is reason to doubt that the claimant is a child. Age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of unaccompanied or trafficked children”.[1] The importance of assessing age accurately and appropriately cannot be underestimated. If a child is assessed to be an adult, the treatment and support they receive will be vastly different. ECPAT UK is aware that many children are trafficked on adult documents so that they pass through the border more easily. In some instances, officials accept the given age on the document, even if they acknowledge the document is false.

Missing children

Research by ECPAT UK has shown that high numbers of child victims of trafficking go missing from local authority care once identified as victims, or even before they are formally identified as victims.[2] There are no commonly agreed safety and protection standards across the UK for the placement of children who are suspected or known to be victims of trafficking. ECPAT UK’s research also identified a worrying lack of consistency in the way in which local authorities identify and record risk of trafficking and exploitation. These inconsistencies have allowed safeguarding issues to be sidelined and, in some instances, cast aside; leading to further harm to the child. It also means that the number of trafficked and unaccompanied children going missing is probably far higher than the number represented in official figures.

Criminalisation of child victims

Despite being the victims of crime themselves, many children are unjustly charged and convicted for offences they are forced to commit while being exploited. This is particularly the case for children who are exploited for cannabis cultivation and those exploited in drug trafficking. Other children are prosecuted for document-related offences or for crimes such as theft-related offences, despite being forced into the activities and not benefiting financially from the crimes themselves. At the initial point of contact, children may be seen as criminals, and indicators of trafficking are not recognised and/or acted upon, often with adverse consequences. ECPAT UK’s training programme aims to reduce the number of children who are treated in this way by building the capacity of frontline professionals to identify victims and respond appropriately.

The Crown Prosecution Service has issued guidance on the non-prosecution of victims of trafficking in line with European legislation. It states that “[i]f the defendant is a child victim of trafficking/slavery, the extent to which the crime alleged against the child was consequent on and integral to his/her being a victim of trafficking/slavery must be considered. In some cases the criminal offence is a manifestation of the exploitation.”[1] Despite this and provisions in law to counter criminalisation, convictions still take place and young people continue to suffer.

Regularising their immigration status

Foreign national children who are identified as victims of trafficking often experience significant challenges to regularise their immigration status and remain in the UK as adults. Under the current system, a child from outside the European Union who has had their asylum claim refused may be given what is known as UASC leave. This is limited leave to remain in the UK until the age of 17.5 or 30 months leave (whichever is shorter), if it is not safe to return them to their country of origin. Children have the right to appeal if they should have been recognised as a refugee. However, these appeals may be refused and they may then face removal directions, returning them to countries where they often have few connections and face serious risks on return such as re-trafficking. In the case of EU nationals, there is often confusion about their right to remain in the UK and concerns have been raised about returning these children to situations where there has not been a sufficient assessment of ongoing risk.

Children who are victims of modern slavery need long-term support and protection to stay safe and recover from their abuse. Many child victims of trafficking turning 18 will have had to overcome considerable barriers in order to rebuild their lives, reclaim their childhoods, establish an education, gain work and make personal connections here.  Young people will face a significant risk of being re-trafficked if they are returned. The current system therefore undermines the ability of the child, or those supporting the child, to properly plan for that child’s protection and recovery.

[1] Crown Prosecution Service (2016), Human trafficking, smuggling and slavery. Available at:

[1]  Department for Education (2017), Care of unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery:

[2] ECPAT UK and Missing People (2018), Still in Harm’s Way: An update report on trafficked and unaccompanied children going missing from care in the UK. Available at: