A collaborative study conducted by the University of Nottingham Rights Lab and ECPAT UK has identified the reality of child modern slavery in the UK and signalled a critical call to action. The research sheds light on the persistent challenges stemming from gaps in resources and policy, especially in the absence of a UK wide Child Exploitation Strategy. 

The findings reveal an absence of a comprehensive multi-departmental child exploitation strategy, exacerbating the shortcomings in current legislation and leaving child victims inadequately protected. The six-month investigation exposes child protection failings, demonstrating a clear need for immediate intervention.

Children are largely seen to be at risk of modern slavery due to the vulnerability of childhood, with many being targeted as a result of their age, experience, knowledge and maturity level. The study also highlights the increased vulnerability of children subject to immigration control, exacerbated by punitive migration policies.

The research exposes that insufficient resources pose a significant obstacle to prevention and early identification efforts, leaving children at risk of harm or, worse, unidentified as victims of modern slavery. With local authorities and police forces grappling with reduced budgets and escalating workloads, frontline professionals face severe limitations in their capacity to respond. 

Compounded by a lack of awareness and confusion surrounding terms like 'modern slavery,' 'human trafficking,' and 'child criminal exploitation,' safeguarding is compromised. Frontline professionals, tasked with identifying exploited children, often overlook crucial indicators due to legislative ambiguity, inadequate understanding, and insufficient training.

Through reviewing local policies and responses to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, the study further identified some poor levels of data collection and recording at a local level, which suggests that the UK’s wider child protection response to child victims is inadequate.

In 2022, a staggering 29% increase in identified child victims of modern slavery was reported, with over 7,000 cases—a number believed to be conservative due to flawed identification methods. The study reveals large gaps in data collection and recording at a local level, exposing the inadequacy of the UK's broader child protection response.

Following their research, the teams from the Nottingham Rights Lab and ECPAT UK make vital recommendations for the prevention of child exploitation and protection of children. Advocating for a comprehensive approach, these recommendations include:

  1.  Ensuring sufficient funding and resources across child protection departments and first responders.    Crafting a national cross-departmental Child Exploitation Strategy. 
  2. Enhancing local data collection mechanisms for a better understanding of all forms of child exploitation and to inform any national strategy.        
  3. Safeguarding against immigration enforcement functions heightening the risk of modern slavery for children and young people.
  4.  Spearheading the development of early intervention programs grounded in inclusive and holistic models.  

Dr Ergul Celiksoy, from the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, said:

"Child modern slavery is a gross violation of children’s fundamental human rights. Yet thousands of children across the UK are being subjected to modern slavery and human trafficking every year. It is imperative that we intensify our efforts in prevention and early identification, to shield children and young adults from the clutches of modern slavery and nurture a society where every child can thrive free from exploitation and abuse."

Patricia Durr, CEO of Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK), said:

“This research highlights the failure to prevent the exploitation of children in the UK and the inadequacy of responses once children have been subjected to harm. Given the lack of a national strategy, investment in children and young people and the significant decline in resources for children’s services over the past decade, it is inevitable that local authorities are struggling to fulfil their basic statutory functions and have cut preventative services. We urge them to prioritise the needs of children in their local areas and call on the government and all political parties to give due consideration to the recommendations set out in this report to prevent a further generation of children being subjected to human trafficking and modern slavery. 

“In the immediate, we urge the government to halt its regressive and harmful policies which will see a significant increase in migrant children’s vulnerability to exploitation. We also emphasise the urgent need for a UK wide Child Exploitation Strategy that is truly cross-government, including devolved administrations and local government. To effectively prevent child exploitation, it is crucial to foster collaboration and invest in both children and communities, encouraging cohesive efforts. Without such measures, we risk persisting in our failure to safeguard all children and to promptly identify, protect, and respond to those who are at risk and experiencing abuse. These evidence-based recommendations serve as a collective call to action, paving the way for a future where the protection and well-being of every child are at the forefront of our priorities.”

Liz Williams, Policy Impact Manager at the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre, which funded the study, said:

"Modern slavery affecting children, both British and those arriving from overseas, is a growing problem that needs addressing urgently. We hope evidence generated by this study can inform the direction of the UK Government’s approach to addressing this issue.”


Notes to Editors

  1. For media enquiries, please contact: [email protected]
  2. This report was funded by the  Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC).
  3. Full report can be found here.