Update: The government consultation is now closed. You can continue to speak out against the new immigration plan by using this link to contact your MP.

Wednesday, 21st April 2021

The government’s New Plan for Immigration includes proposals which will impact all child victims of trafficking as well as all children and young people subject to immigration control. The proposals include reforms of modern slavery legislation alongside wider asylum proposals. ECPAT UK has produced a guide to help you respond to the government's public consultation and make sure your voice is heard.

We are very concerned about a range of measures proposed which, taken together, will affect all child victims of trafficking, including British national children. They will also be particularly detrimental to unaccompanied children who are at significant risk of exploitation.

In light of official National Referral Mechanism (NRM) data showing that more children than ever before were identified as potential victims of trafficking in 2020, it is more important than ever to raise concerns about child victims.  

The government has stated that its intention is to improve support for child victims, but in reality, the proposals will deepen a child protection crisis already made worse by Covid-19.

Increasing numbers of children are being identified as victims, yet children face significant barriers to protection and recovery, including regularising their immigration status as they transition to adulthood. Child victims already struggle with the immigration and asylum process - many remain in immigration limbo throughout their formative years, unable to recover from their exploitation.

The proposals contain hostile, conflicting and inaccurate statements, and provide little evidence. The government is now consulting on the Plan and while we have grave concerns about how it is being conducted, we’re urging the government to ensure child victims of trafficking are safeguarded and supported to achieve a stable future. We’re also asking our supporters to amplify young people’s voices to ensure that their message is heard.

The consultation on these wide-ranging reforms is taking place over just 6 weeks, with no direct engagement with survivors or meaningful consideration of the impact they will have on children and young people.  

In line with the government’s international and domestic duties and responsibilities towards children, any reform must put children’s rights and protection first, and all decisions must be taken with their best interests as a priority.

Download the guide

Our key concerns are:

Plans to introduce credibility assessments for first responders will limit children’s access to the NRM. Children are commonly disbelieved by authorities who do not have child trafficking expertise to assess a claim or determine credibility. The current process already has credibility assessments to determine whether or not a person is a victim; adding an additional burden will significantly impact children.

Clarifying the reasonable grounds threshold is one of the most concerning proposals. It will impact all child victims, including British national children who make up the highest proportion of those identified as potential child victims. Introducing a higher standard of proof at the reasonable grounds stage will likely exclude many children from being identified as potential victims of trafficking, and if pursued will constitute a moral and legal failure to protect some of society’s most vulnerable children.

Clarifying the definition of “public order” could effectively prevent children caught up in offending due to their exploitation from being assessed by the NRM and being protected. When children and young people exploited for criminal activity have faced imprisonment for longer than a year - usually because they were never identified as victims nor supported to challenge the prosecution – they will be negatively impacted by changes to the rules and excluded from protection.

Immigration leave for child victims of trafficking is not taken into account at all within the proposals and the plan sets out a completely inappropriate standard for children. Reforms must put children’s rights and protection first and provide a stable future that identifies what is in their best interests long term, including their immigration status and care plan. Child victims subject to immigration control should be automatically considered for immigration leave upon receiving a positive conclusive ground decision from the NRM. What’s more, the length of leave granted should be in line with each child’s best interests so that they can recover from exploitation and transition to adulthood in safety and stability. A minimum of 5 years should be provided, with the ability to apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR).

The new ‘one-stop’ immigration process proposal requiring people to raise all protection-related issues ‘upfront’ flies in the face of any understanding of the human experience of trauma, abuse and child development. Victims of trafficking often do not disclose their exploitation immediately; particularly children recounting abuse. Children are often too afraid and mistrusting to disclose their experiences at once and it is common that abusers coach them with a story to tell authorities. We are very concerned about the inclusion of victims of modern slavery within this immigration proposal. Identifying victims is not an immigration matter but a safeguarding matter. Given the vulnerability of survivors of child trafficking and the need for a child protection response, identification of this abuse is entirely inappropriate within the immigration system.

Age assessment proposals could see more children classed as adults and at risk. They also contradict provisions in The Modern Slavery Act 2015 to prevent children from being treated as adults. The new proposals allow immigration officers to make ‘reasonable initial assessments of age’, rather than social workers. They also provide new procedures for medical assessments, even though there is currently no accepted process to accurately determine age. The proposals will therefore actively undermine measures that already aren’t working properly. For unaccompanied child victims of trafficking, this has led to imprisonment and detention among other breaches of children’s rights due to unlawful age disputes.

Wider asylum proposals will be particularly harmful to unaccompanied children who are at significant risk of exploitation. Together, the proposals will make children’s journeys more dangerous, penalise them for entering the UK clandestinely and offer them no protection. Child victims already struggle within the asylum process - many remain in immigration limbo throughout their formative years, unable to recover from their exploitation.

There is much of concern in the Immigration Plan, and the impact on child victims must be addressed. If not, more traumatised children will be lost, placed in more danger and at risk of further exploitation, criminalisation, removal from the UK - all without the protection they are entitled to. We need to see reforms that lead to better safeguards and more protection, support and care; not increased hostility, inaccuracy and confusion.

Download the guide

Take action today:

  1. Respond to the public consultation on the plans using our guide
  2. Contact your MP about your concerns - you can email, tweet or contact them in other ways using this link
  3. Read our briefing on immigration leave for child victims
  4. Support our campaign
  5. Donate to support our work