Thursday, 2nd April 2020

The number of children identified as potential victims of trafficking has risen dramatically according to official statistics released today, raising concerns about the ability of UK authorities to appropriately respond to these children in light of unnecessary delays to decision making in their cases, funding constraints for local authorities and lack of specialist support for child victims.

The National Crime Agency’s annual data on the number of people referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s official system for identifying victims - shows there was a staggering 45% increase in the number of children identified as potential victims in 2019 compared to 2018.

A total of 4,550 children were identified by UK authorities as potential victims of trafficking in 2019, up from 3,137 in 2018. Additionally, nearly half of all victims identified were children – in line with findings from the previous year.

The vast majority of child victims were from the UK, however significant numbers of children from Vietnam, Eritrea, Albania and Sudan were identified as potential victims in 2019.

In 2019, 76% of all children identified as potential victims were boys, although it is likely that this reflects the increasing recognition of male victims of child criminal exploitation.

Importantly, from October – December 2019, labour exploitation and criminal exploitation were recorded as separate exploitation types, having previously been grouped together. ECPAT UK has long called for these two often very different exploitation types to be separated in order to accurately measure the scale of each form of exploitation.

With criminal exploitation now acknowledged as a separate exploitation type, the data for October – December 2019 highlighted the extent that children are being exploited for criminal activity, as this was the most common exploitation type for child victims. This was driven by increased identification of children exploited in criminal exploitation including in the form of ‘county lines’ activity.

A system not fit for purpose

ECPAT UK has long campaigned for overhaul of the NRM, recently taking a 125,000-strong petition to Downing Street calling for measures including guaranteed specialist support for children identified as victims, provision of a guardian for each child and an immigration decision that would grant non-UK national victims a stable future.

With victims increasing year on year, the support available fails to keep up. Last week marked the 5th anniversary of the Modern Slavery Act, yet the most basic of support measures – a guardian for child victims – is not yet available to the majority of victims, despite being enshrined in law for half a decade.

Laura Duran, Senior Policy and Research Officer at ECPAT UK, said:

‘Yet again we’re seeing a rise in the number of children identified as potential victims but no accompanying resourcing of support for those affected. Additionally, these numbers represent only those identified as potential victims by professionals – we know that the true number of victims is likely to be significantly higher, so we can expect these figures to continue to rise each year.

‘We’re very concerned about the ongoing delays children face while waiting for the outcomes of decisions on their status as victims of trafficking in a system that is not child-friendly or delivered locally by professionals known to each child. 

‘In some cases, young people have reported waiting for over a year for a decision on their case, which also causes significant delays to immigration decisions if they are also claiming asylum. This leaves many children facing extended periods of immigration limbo in which their lives are on hold and they're unable to recover from exploitation or plan for the future.

‘These delays are also extremely harmful to child victims who are navigating the criminal justice system for crimes they committed while they were being exploited, as the decision may affect their prosecution.

'Behind these figures are real children who desperately need support. The government must now ensure adequate resources are allocated to a system that works for children and that they receive robus​t decisions in a timely manner, so they can access the support they’re entitled to and have a stable future.’


Press contact

Sinead Geoghegan, Communications and Media Manager, ECPAT UK, [email protected], 0207 607 2136