Saturday, 17th October 2020

The government is failing in its treatment of child victims of trafficking in a hostile immigration system, according to shocking new data obtained by ECPAT UK under the Freedom of Information Act ahead of the 10 year anniversary of the UK's Anti-Slavery Day.

The data shows that 4,695 adults and children subject to immigration control were confirmed as victims of trafficking in the four-year period of 2016-2019. However just 28 child victims were granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK.

The Home Office failed to reveal how many of the 4,695 victims were children, but annual statistics on referrals into the National Referral Mechanism – the UK’s system for identifying victims of trafficking -  show that in these four years, children comprised nearly half of all people identified as potential victims.

Child victims of trafficking who have been confirmed as victims by the National Referral Mechanism may be granted discretionary leave outside of the UK’s immigration rules, in recognition of their specific needs and vulnerabilities.

In these cases, the Home Office should automatically consider a grant of discretionary leave in line with children’s rights under domestic and international law. Additionally, the period of leave should be long enough to provide each child with a ‘durable solution’ – a long term outcome in line with their best interests.

However, the FOI data showed the vast majority of both adult and child victims are only granted discretionary leave for periods of up to 12 months. For children,such a short grant of leave is rarely in their best interests as it does not provide the stability they need to stay safe and recover from the trauma and abuse they have experienced.

Furthermore, the FOI data showed that of the total number of victims of trafficking granted asylum and humanitarian protection, children were underrepresented; comprising just 20.7% of those granted asylum and 29% of those granted humanitarian protection.

The data does not provide information on the number of young victims of trafficking granted ‘UASC’ leave as unaccompanied children seeking asylum, which lasts two years or until a young person turns 17-and-a-half; whichever period is shorter.

However from our direct work with trafficked young people we know that many are granted this form of leave as a ‘stop gap’ measure which leaves them in constant anxiety as to their futures, and is highly unsuitable due to the specific need for stability among those who have suffered substantial trauma.

Patricia Durr, Chief Executive of ECPAT UK, said:

A decade ago, to mark its commitment to ending exploitation, the government introduced the UK’s Anti-Slavery Day and ECPAT UK produced its first ‘snapshot’ report on the issues affecting child victims. However, 10 years on, the UK is still failing child victims and many of the issues within our report have remained unchanged.

ECPAT UK was shocked both by the data and because we only have this information on long term outcomes for children because we pursued freedom of information requests over a significant period of time.

The data confirms what we know from our direct work with young people – that we have a system forcing victims of child trafficking to navigate very complex immigration procedures and leaving them effectively stranded as they turn 18.

It’s hard to overstate how challenging immigration limbo is for young victims of trafficking - spending their teenage years anxious about their future, unable to recover from the trauma and abuse they have suffered, at high risk of going missing and being exploited again, and dreading their 18th birthday. Covid-19 has worsened these challenges as much of the support they rely on has fallen away and hostility toward migrants has increased.

We urgently need an integrated process for child victims that sees them as children first, protects and cares for  them and identifies what is in their best interests long term, and ensures everyone is working together to find a long term durable solution for them, including decisions on their immigration status. At the very least, the Home Secretary must follow her own guidance to consider the best interests of children as a primary consideration in decisions made by her department.”

Statistics showing the numbers of victims of trafficking granted discretionary leave to remain in the UK

It is well established that immigration insecurity is a significant driver of trafficked and unaccompanied young people going missing from care, which can indicate they are being (re)trafficked.

ECPAT UK’s previous research with Missing People found high numbers of trafficked and unaccompanied children go missing from care in the UK: in 2017, 27% of all identified or suspected victims of trafficking and 15% of all unaccompanied children went missing from care at least once. Each missing trafficked child was reported missing an average of 7.2 times in 2017 and almost 20% of those reported missing had not been found - raising significant concern for their wellbeing.

Jon* a member of our youth programme for victims of child trafficking, urged the government to provide trafficked young people with the long term stability they need to recover and live independent lives:

“Some of the asylum seekers have to wait for years before the Home Office finally make their decision.

This is really affecting the mental wellbeing of young people, which includes having bad dreams, overthinking, and increases their fear of return.

My message for policy makers is that they should make sure that the Home Office are abiding by this law, so as to make many young people believe in the system.”

His comments echo those of Sara**, who bravely shared her story with Parliamentarians last year:

“We are here to be better people and to be what we wish and hope for. I would say help us to be that ‘better’ person. Not isolate us or make us feel our life is worse than it ever was.”

Please stand with young victims of trafficking and demand the government give them stable futures.



ECPAT UK’s stable futures campaign calls for the following measures to be implemented:

  1. The UK Government must expand the Independent Child Trafficking Guardian service in England and Wales to all unaccompanied children as well as those already identified as potential victims of trafficking.
  2. The UK Government must provide long-term stability to all child victims of trafficking. For child victims who are migrants, this includes an immigration decision based on their best interests.

*Not his real name
**Not her real name


ECPAT UK is a leading children’s rights organisation campaigning to protect children from trafficking and transnational exploitation. We support children everywhere to uphold their right sand to live a life free from abuse and exploitation. ECPAT UK was established in 1994 as the UK member of the ECPAT International network and produced the UK’s first piece of research into child trafficking in the UK in 2001. Find out more:

Press contact

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