Tuesday, 29th September 2020

Today, ECPAT UK gave evidence on the non-punishment principle for child victims of trafficking to the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) at an open session with civil society as part of the group’s evaluation of the UK.

GRETA is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings by the Parties, which was ratified by the UK in 2009 and imposes obligations on the government to identify and protect victims of trafficking.

Some of the key protective measures in place in the UK originate from the Convention, including the National Referral Mechanism – the official system for identifying victims of trafficking – and the ‘benefit of the doubt’ principle in age assessments of young people.

The Convention also places an obligation on the UK to reduce all children’s vulnerability to trafficking, in recognition of children's heightened vulnerability to exploitation and abuse; calling for a ‘protective environment’ for children.

The Group of Experts regularly carry out country visits to evaluate each State’s compliance with the Convention, producing country reports that highlight gaps as well as progress.

This year, as part of their evaluation of the UK, they met with NGOs and other civil society members in a virtual session hosted by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group and chaired by the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton.

During the session, NGOs including ECPAT UK shared expertise on the main themes arising from written evidence provided to GRETA earlier in the year, including access to justice and effective remedies for victims.

ECPAT UK’s senior policy and research officer, Laura Durán presented evidence on the non-punishment provision in the UK and its impact on child victims of trafficking. She said:

“ECPAT UK is concerned there are few safeguards preventing the arrest or prosecution of child victims of trafficking. There remain low levels of awareness of the non-punishment principle for children among prosecutors, police and defence solicitors and there is no monitoring of the use of the principle nor of the use of the statutory defence.”

Criminalised instead of supported

Our written evidence, submitted earlier this year, described how this means that trafficked children are “often treated as defendants rather than victims in the UK justice system, resulting in their victimisation by the State as well as by their traffickers”, which can be deeply traumatising for trafficked children with a long term impact on their wellbeing.

This is despite Section 45 of the UK’s landmark Modern Slavery Act 2015 introducing a statutory defence for child and adult victims who are compelled to commit criminal offences as part of their exploitation.

However, this statutory defence only provides a defence after prosecution – meaning it does not protect victims from being prosecuted in the first instance and does not meet the international definition of non-prosecution.

Along with other anti-exploitation NGOs, ECPAT UK advocated for the inclusion of the non-punishment principle in modern slavery legislation prior to its implementation in 2015, and has raised awareness about criminal exploitation for many years through projects such as RACE in Europe and ReACT, and short films including The Secret Gardeners and Behind the Behaviour.

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

“It is clear that the UK has a significant way to go to ensure child victims of trafficking are protected from both criminal exploitation by traffickers and criminalisation by the State for offences committed as a result of their exploitation.

“Currently, the statutory defence can only act as an end of the line safety net for victims who have been prosecuted, rather than preventing prosecution and criminalisation from happening in the first place.

“Until all child victims are protected – including those exploited in criminal activity – we will continue to advocate for broader protections and greater professional awareness of child criminal exploitation through our campaigns and training programme.”


Press contact

Sinead Geoghegan, Communications and Media Manager, ECPAT UK, [email protected] 07402 113 985