A leading EU human rights body, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), has released guidance supporting improved guardianship systems across the European Union. The handbook recognises the vital role guardians play in protecting all children from trafficking, abuse and exploitation, citing guardianship systems as fundamental to improving Member State child protection strategies.

ECPAT UK influenced the production of the guidance, accepting an invitation from the FRA to join influential non-governmental organisations (NGOs), practitioners and representatives of responsible authorities in discussions on the draft documents.

For seven years, ECPAT UK has helped lead the call for the UK to introduce a legal system of guardianship to protect trafficked children. Under the system, each child victim of trafficking would be assigned an independent adult with the expertise and legal powers to advocate on their behalf and ensure decisions are made in their best interests, helping to curb the high risk to trafficked children of re-trafficking and abuse. 

The guidance also establishes the core principles that should underpin any system of guardianship, which include: non-discrimination, independence, quality, accountability, sustainability and child participation.

Announcing the launch of the publication, Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, said: “Children are particularly vulnerable and at greater risk of becoming victims of trafficking in human beings. Child protection is a cornerstone of our EU anti-trafficking legislation and guardianship plays a very important role for the prevention of child abuse and exploitation. Regardless of their immigration status, children should be first and foremost treated as children."

Each year, hundreds of child victims of trafficking in the UK are subjected to the worst kinds of abuse imaginable – including forced labour, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation. Numerous studies have shown that 60% of these exploited children go missing from care, with a majority of those re-trafficked and never heard from again.

ECPAT UK has now turned its attention to the Modern Slavery Bill, campaigning for the inclusion of a statutory, independent and legal system of guardianship into the draft legislation. Under immense pressure, In February the Home Secretary part-acceded to the powerful call of more than 70,000 campaigners involved in the ECPAT UK and Walk Free campaign, and pledged to introduce a trial advocates scheme for trafficked children. 

While acknowledging the scheme as an important first step and early victory in the Modern Slavery Bill campaign, ECPAT UK has said it will continue to push for a legal guardianship system as part of a holistic strategy to tackle the root causes and consequences of child trafficking. 

Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy and Campaigns (Child Trafficking), said: “The UK Government cannot continue to ignore the overwhelming support for a UK legal system of guardianship not only from within the UK, but also across the European Union. Any scheme that falls short in meeting the core principles set out is in this document will ultimately be limited in protecting children, some of the most vulnerable victims of this heinous abuse of children and their fundamental rights.”