Friday, 29th May 2020

As lockdown measures begin to ease, many of us across the country are eagerly waiting a return to normality. But for children and young people affected by trafficking, the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic has created a new set of risks and obstacles - deepening inequalities, worsening instability and creating a perfect storm for children to be re-trafficked or harmed.

For hundreds or young people across the UK, lockdown measures have made a bad situation worse. Members of our youth programme for victims of child trafficking have experienced significant impacts on their mental health from being confined within four walls. 'It’s like a repetition of trafficking' said Jean*, a survivor of child trafficking. 'You don't have anybody, you don't have access to the world, appointments are cancelled. You don't know what to do, you feel lost.'

Many young people now face delays to life-changing asylum and National Referral Mechanism decisions on their official status as a victim of trafficking, intensifying the weight of immigration limbo they experience, with no clear end in sight. Some young survivors of trafficking don’t have a laptop or camera phone, leaving them completely isolated from essential services, education and social contact.

In April, these issues were confounded by the weakening of social care regulations designed to protect children in care, which includes many child victims of trafficking. Statutory Instrument 445 was passed without public consultation, parliamentary debate or scrutiny, despite making around 100 changes to 10 sets of children's social care regulations and weakening 60 vital protections for children. This means that rather than strengthening support for children during the public health crisis, the government has reduced obligations on social workers - removing a last line of defence for vulnerable young people.

These changes have come at a time when criminal gangs are continuing to target children for criminal exploitation in drug supply during the lockdown, with this risk likely to increase as the lockdown eases. Children and young people are also at increased risk of online sexual exploitation and harm through spending more time online.

Laura Durán, Senior Policy and Research Officer at ECPAT UK, said

'It’s well established that with inadequate investment in support provision, and uncertainty and fear surrounding their future in the UK, an unconscionable number of young people affected by trafficking go missing from local authority care. Many are re-trafficked and some are never found.

'It is clear that for the most vulnerable children and young people in the UK, the lockdown has not kept them safe but put them directly in harm’s way.

'It is imperative that the government acts quickly to reverse its harmful changes to children’s care regulations. We also want to see government address the issues faced by vulnerable young people who are care leavers, so they receive the support they need to recover from exploitation and prevent them from being re-trafficked.'

Guardianship and immigration security provide children with stable futures

A system of independent guardianship, which establishes a specialist, trusted professional appointed to support each child victim of trafficking, was introduced in law over 5 years ago but the government have still not rolled it out across the country. The limitations of the existing child protection system mean that charities have to step in to ensure that young people’s basic needs are met. But since the lockdown began, charities are less able to meet these needs - meaning that some young people are falling through the net. A properly implemented system of independent guardianship would ensure that the system is strong enough to protect children now and in future crises. 

For children who have been trafficked from their home countries or faced exploitation en route to the UK, many face extremely long and stressful processes to find stability. Children live on a cliff edge, with precarity over immigration decisions often driving them to seek unsafe or exploitative work for fear of return to countries where they may be further harmed.

With employers impacted heavily by this crisis, exploitative recruiters are even more likely to target these vulnerable groups of young people. By providing decisions for children about their future early on, they can move on with their education, further training or careers and build stable lives for themselves. But with just 16 out of 326 applications for discretionary leave to remain in the UK approved for child victims of trafficking between April 2017 and the end of 2018, a stable future is a pipe dream.

This is why ECPAT UK is calling for the government to invest in young people’s immediate and long term stability - to prevent the Covid-19 crisis becoming a child protection crisis.

Join us in calling for all child victims of trafficking to be given stable futures by:

  1. Signing our stable futures petition
  2. Tweeting your MP
  3. Sharing our petition with your friends and family and asking for their support

*Name changed to protect the young person's identity



Part of a painting titled 'Soul loss', created during the lockdown by a member of our youth group for trafficked girls and young women.

Press contact

Sinead Geoghegan, Communications and Media Manager, ECPAT UK, 0207 607 2136, c[email protected]