Child trafficking is defined as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt” of a child for the purpose of exploitation. This definition comes from the United Nations Palermo Protocol, which has been adopted by the UK and the majority of countries around the world, making it the internationally accepted definition of human trafficking. A child is defined by the Palermo Protocol and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as any person under the age of 18. In the UK, trafficking is regarded as a form of modern slavery.

The trafficking of children is a process comprised of two distinct stages: the Act and the Purpose. This is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or reception of persons, including the exchange or transfer of control over those persons ... for the purpose of exploitation.” The definition of child trafficking differs slightly from that of adults, which requires an extra stage for trafficking to be present – that of the Means, “of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person”. The Means stage is not required for the definition of child trafficking. This is not to say that this stage does not occur for child victims, but the definition recognises that a child cannot give informed consent to his or her own exploitation, even if he or she agrees to travel or understands what has happened.

Essentially, child trafficking is child abuse and should be treated within a child protection context. It is also a crime and abuse of an individual’s human rights.

Trafficking can occur across international borders (i.e. into and out of the UK) but also within borders. The latter is commonly known as ‘internal trafficking’. This means that children who are moved around the UK for the purposes of exploitation, whether they are children from abroad or citizen children, can be considered victims of trafficking. Many children may have been trafficked to other countries prior to arriving in the UK.

It is estimated that 5.5 million children are trafficked worldwide each year.[1] Children account for nearly half of all trafficking victims discovered in the UK,[2] and the global child trafficking market is valued at over $12 billion a year.[3]

There is sometimes confusion between human trafficking and people smuggling. Smuggling involves the movement of people across an international border, when a person cannot access a legal route to migrate. In people smuggling, the transaction between the person and the smuggler ends on arrival at their destination. In cases of human trafficking, the movement can take place through clandestine entry across international borders but it can also happen when a person enters a country legally or within a country where a person does not cross an international border at all. However, there is a grey area between the two due to the inherent vulnerability to exploitation of people who have a precarious immigration status and cannot access safe, legal routes in migration. It can be particularly confusing in cases when a child or adult may think they are being smuggled by paying an agent to enable them to travel overseas. However, the agent may deceive the person and exploit them. This then becomes human trafficking.

Children may have been exploited and abused en route to the UK or forced to undergo a long and traumatic journey before arriving in the UK. Practitioners working with children must be mindful of this, even if initially there is no immediate evidence of trauma.

[1] International Labour Organization and Walk Free Foundation. (2017). Global estimates of modern slavery: forced labour and forced marriage. ILO: Geneva.

[2] National Crime Agency. (2018) 2018 NRM statistics:

[3] International Labour Organization. (2009). Training Manual to Fight Trafficking in Children for Labour, Sexual and Other Forms of Exploitation. ILO: Geneva.