New Government data published by the National Crime Agency (NCA) reporting a 47 percent increase in human trafficking only hints at the larger and more complex reality of the issue in the UK, children’s rights charity ECPAT UK has warned.

The NCA’s report is an annual assessment of the number of referrals of potential victims of trafficking made by authorised agencies, known as First Responders, to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the Government decision-making body charged with identifying and ruling on the trafficking status of victims and deciding if a potential victim is eligible for protection and support.

Released less than two months after the Government’s proposed modern slavery and human trafficking legislation, the figures highlight the urgent need for a comprehensive Government response to the issue.

Speaking to the Metro UK newspaper, ECPAT UK said that the Government’s planned legislation, the Modern Slavery Bill, must be improved significantly if authorities are to actively protect victims – particularly children – prosecute offenders and prevent the perpetuation of these heinous crimes.

“There is a culture of disbelief in this country about trafficking but we need to wake up to it, and the government must ensure its proposed Modern Slavery Bill contains the tools to actually protect victims and prosecute offenders,” said Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy & Campaigns, ECPAT UK.

Ms Setter also said that the reported increase in child trafficking merely scratched the surface of the issue in the UK, noting that a large proportion of trafficking victims, including children, are never identified as such by authorities.

Flaws in data collection mechanisms, a lack of awareness of the issues among frontline staff, procedures and insensitivity towards the victims’ situation, a lack of a system of legal guardianship for trafficked children and conditions within the environment of abuse all hinder the identification and protection process.

Government’s proposal to introduce a Modern Slavery Bill with an Anti-Trafficking Commissioner responsible for improving the UK’s data collection mechanisms and ensuring Government responses address the issues, whilst a positive move, is an incomplete step.

ECPAT UK’s campaign for a stronger Modern Slavery Bill calls for:

  • Measures to protect and assist all victims, including the creation of a system of legal guardianship to provide vulnerable children with an independent professional to fight for their rights

  • The establishment of an independent Anti-Trafficking Commissioner to monitor and improve the UK’s response to human trafficking

  • The creation of a specific crime of child trafficking and exploitation to reflect the severity of this abuse of children and convict more offenders

  • Protection for victims so they are not imprisoned for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers

There were 1746 referrals of potential victims of human trafficking during the year, representing a 47% increase on 2012 referral totals. The potential trafficking victims were from 112 countries of origin.

Coverage of the report has widely focused on the vast increase in numbers of UK-born children trafficked and sexually exploited, up a staggering 155% from 2012.

By comparison, the relatively smaller percentage increases in the number of children identified as trafficked into the UK, up 11% overall, should be viewed with caution, ECPAT UK said.

Research carried out by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group has pointed to discrimination in the identification process for non-UK-born children. With many decisions handled by the Home Office, experts say immigration responsibilities impact negatively on decisions to protect these victims.

“We’ve seen evidence of potential discrimination within the identification system – this has been documented by ourselves and others and applies to children who are non-EU nationals, those from Nigeria or Vietnam. What we need to do is move the ID system away from the Home Office,” Ms Setter said.

"Their job is to protect borders. There needs to be a specialist’s team that does this. We also want the government to fix the fraud identification system and put statutory duty on public authorities to identify and support victims."