Friday, 22nd June 2018

By Catherine Baker, Policy and Campaigns Officer at ECPAT UK

The limitations of the Government’s much-vaulted modern slavery agenda have been exposed in recent months. From a damning National Audit Office report which highlighted a lack of oversight, a Justice Inspectorate report highlighting inconsistent and ineffective identification of victims, and the recent resignation of the first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, the cracks in this policy area are beginning to show.

But one aspect of this policy that has garnered less attention is around its most vulnerable victims - children. Our new report, Child trafficking in the UK 2018: A snapshot, indicates that despite significant progress made towards understanding and tackling modern slavery in the UK, children are being left behind.

Whilst children represent nearly half of all victims identified (rising by a staggering 66% last year, to 2,218 victims), the report reveals that a lack of child-specific policies and resourcing has left these children without specialist support and vulnerable to further harm.

Child trafficking is a form of child abuse and a grave violation children’s rights. It is therefore a specific phenomenon, which requires a different response from adults, one that is centred on child rights and child protection. Yet this is precisely where the response has been lacking. Rather than taking a victim-centred and child focused approach, the Government’s modern slavery response has been largely focused on criminal justice and immigration.

This is particularly evident in the support provision for victims, where one would expect child victims to be the highest recipients. Yet unlike for adults, who receive specialist accommodation and recovery support from a Government contract run by the Salvation Army, there is no specialist support provision for child victims. Responsibility instead falls within general children’s services, where there is no additional funding, specialist accommodation provision and no mandatory training for social workers on child trafficking. ECPAT UK regularly trains frontline workers on these issues, yet on a regular basis, not a single social worker in a training room will realise that it is their duty to report trafficking risks of children in their care. How can children get the support they need to recover from such experiences if those responsible for their care do not understand their needs?

Because child protection responsibility is devolved to Local Authorities, where awareness of these issues is low and recording practices are inconsistent, these children become pretty much invisible from national data. This leaves us with little way of knowing whether they are safe and protected from further harm.

Sadly, much of what we do know of what happens to them is far from positive. Our report, Heading back to Harm, highlighted that over a one year period until September 2015, nearly a third of all trafficked and unaccompanied asylum seeking children went missing from care at least once, and over 200 of these children were never found. Other children get returned to their country of origin once they turn 18, with little scrutiny, no proper risk assessment and with a high likelihood that they will be further exploited or re-trafficked.

Small steps are being taken but they are limited and slow to materialise. The one key provision for children under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act was to establish an independent guardianship scheme to act as an advocate for each of these children. Yet it is still only being trialled in a few areas, with no clarity on when full roll-out is expected. Long-awaited reforms to the National Referral Mechanism, the system for identification and support of modern slavery victims, were announced in October. But whilst for adults this includes additional support provision, the reforms do not offer any material support provision for child victims.

At the same time, immigration objectives continue to hinder meaningful progress for children. There is no policy to provide child victims of trafficking with long term stability in this country through their immigration status, and a hostile immigration environment continues to create barriers to them accessing vital services such as health and education. Despite dire conditions for separated children across Europe, there are very few safe, legal routes for children to enter the UK, which leaves them unprotected and exposed to exploitation. Coupled with this is a looming threat posed by Brexit that the UK will no longer be able to cooperate fully with European child protection mechanisms.

So whilst the UK Government’s modern slavery agenda has undoubtedly been a major step forward towards understanding and responding to this crime, has it now begun to reach its limits? Exposing these limitations of the Government’s response shows that it is time for a new approach for children. This approach should be focussed on children’s rights, centred on their best interests and should be driven by the views of young people themselves. A re-prioritisation of this kind would mean funding to children’s services for specialist provision of support, providing children with an opportunity to regularise their immigration status and opening up safe, legal routes for children to enter the UK.

Child trafficking is not an immigration issue, nor can it be dealt with effectively by prosecutions alone. It is a structural issue, exacerbated and often created by policy choices which make children vulnerable. As such it calls for a response rooted in child protection first and foremost.

This article was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation


Press contacts

Catherine Baker, Policy and Campaigns Officer, ECPAT UK: 020 7607 216 [email protected]

Sinead Geoghegan, Information, Media and Communications Officer, ECPAT UK: 020 7607 2136 [email protected]