Thursday, 25th March 2021

The Home Office has published their ‘New Plan for Immigration’ which includes a significant number of proposals to reform modern slavery legislation which will affect survivors of child exploitation. Wider measures relating to asylum policy will also be detrimental to survivors who also apply for asylum, a procedure which is already very challenging for many child victims to navigate.

The government's proposals were announced shortly after the release of official NRM data showing more children than ever before were identified as potential victims of trafficking in 2020.

It remains unclear as to why proposals on modern slavery are included in a plan for immigration reform at all, given victim identification is not an immigration matter but rather a child protection issue in the case of children. Whilst we welcome the government’s stated intention to improve support for child victims, this seems incompatible with their plans as set out, particularly:

Proposals to ‘reform’ the standard of proof required to officially identify potential victims at the first stage of the modern slavery procedure under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The Reasonable Grounds threshold is currently set at ‘I suspect but cannot prove’ but the Home Office is proposing to move to a higher threshold because of ‘concerns that individuals are attempting to misuse the system’. This change could have far reaching implication for all child victims, including British national children who form the majority of child victims identified in the UK, with high standards of proof potentially leaving them at risk of not being identified as victims and unable to access protection and support. 

Intentions to clarify the definition of “public order” to prevent those linked to serious criminality’ from being assessed by the NRM. Serious criminality has been defined to apply to those with a prison sentence of 12 months or more. A definition this broad would be particularly harmful to children exploited in criminal activity who, in the absence of adequate identification, have faced custodial sentences - often for drug offences which carry over a year in a youth offending institute. Child victims of criminal exploitation represent the largest group of children exploited in the past year, with 1,544 referrals flagged as ‘county lines’ referrals, most of which relate to British national children.

New bureaucracy regarding age assessments, with the establishment of a National Age Assessment Board whose role includes promoting ‘scientific age assessment methods’, even in the absence of any evidence to support there is such a thing. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 also makes clear that where there is uncertainty over the age of a suspected victim of trafficking, there should be a presumption that the victim is under 18 until a local authority assessment has taken place or the person’s age is otherwise determined. This duty regarding the presumption of age set out in primary legislation seeks to protect children from being treated as adults. The proposals to allow immigration officers to make reasonable initial assessments of age, rather than local authority social workers, could put children at further risk. 

Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK, said

There has been real progress in understanding child trafficking and exploitation in the UK and protecting and supporting child victims.

“Given the commitment in the Immigration Plan to improving support for child victims, I trust that the government will listen to them – they know best how the current system could and should be improved because they experience it every day.

“I urge the government to listen carefully to concerns about the potential impact of these new plans on children and young people and amend them accordingly to ensure that every child victim is identified, safeguarded and supported. If not, more traumatised children will be lost, placed in more danger and at risk of further exploitation, criminalisation and removal." 


Press contact

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