Wednesday, 17th February 2021

Yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the UK Government failed to protect victims of child trafficking and breached two articles of the European Convention on Human Rights relating to the prohibition of forced labour and the right to a fair trial. The Court ordered the UK Government to pay €90,000 EUR (£78,590 GBP) in compensation to the two Vietnamese young people involved, who had been convicted of crimes as children despite signs they had been trafficked and exploited on cannabis farms.

The case was brought to the ECtHR after two Vietnamese young people were charged with drugs offences following been discovered on cannabis farms in 2009 when they were children aged 15 and 17. They pleaded guilty and following their conviction, they were detained in young offenders' institutions before later being recognised as victims of human trafficking by the UK’s competent authority – the body responsible for determining whether individuals are victims of trafficking. However, prosecutors from the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that the young people had not been trafficked. The UK’s Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, ruling that the decision to prosecute them had been justified.

They took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, who found the UK had failed to protect the victims of child trafficking by not considering the competent authority’s expertise in identifying victims of trafficking - breaching article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of slavery and forced labour). In addition, the ECtHR found that both young people had unfair trials because of the UK’s failure to assess whether they had been victims of trafficking potentially prevented them from securing evidence which might have helped their defence – breaching article 6 § 1 (right to a fair trial).

The criminalisation of trafficked children results from systemic failures to recognise that children involved in drug supply are often victims of criminal exploitation who need to be safeguarded rather than punished. This affects British children exploited in so called ‘county lines’ drug supply as well as foreign national children exploited in cannabis farms and other types of criminal offending. ECPAT UK’s The Secret Gardeners film highlighted the high number of Vietnamese children exploited in this way, telling the story of members of our youth programme.

Trafficked children are therefore 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. This can be deeply traumatising for children, with a long term impact on their wellbeing.

The legal framework for non-punishment of trafficking victims is set out in Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Subsequently through the passage of the Modern Slavery Act, a statutory defence was set out in England and Wales through Section 45 which provides for a defence for victims who commit criminal offences as a result of their exploitation. However, there are concerns it is not appropriate for children or compliant with international legislation on child trafficking.

ECPAT UK is concerned that safeguards are insufficient to prevent the arrest and prosecution of child victims of trafficking in the UK. 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.

Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK, said:

“This is a landmark ruling for trafficked children, particularly those exploited in criminal activity, who are often treated as offenders rather than victims. This case reminds us of the urgency of early identification to prevent children of all backgrounds who are exploited in this way from being criminalised.

“The criminalisation of victims contradicts both government safeguarding guidance and modern slavery guidance - both of which clearly acknowledge the need for a safeguarding approach for all children.

“What is clear from this case is that despite improvements, the UK must ensure professional throughout the whole system - from policing through to courts, have the skills and knowledge to identify and safeguard child victims. This will not only help prevent victims from being criminalised, but will also enable their recovery, help protect them from immigration detention, deportation and long, protracted immigration battles as adults on the basis of having been criminally exploited by traffickers when they were children.”


Press contact

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

Photo credit

Council of Europe Credits