The UK and neighbouring European states fail to protect thousands of adults and children trafficked and forced into crime, according to a new study by the RACE in Europe Project.

Authored by a group of leading human rights NGOs, including ECPAT UK and Anti-Slavery International, the report, Trafficking for Forced Criminal Activities and Begging in Europe, reveals that many victims who have been trafficked for criminal exploitation suffer prosecution and imprisonment, while their traffickers evade punishment.

The findings also show that the issue is more widespread than previously reported, with potentially thousands of victims being exploited through a variety of criminal activities.

Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy & Campaigns (Child Trafficking), ECPAT UK, said: “Children who have been trafficked for criminal exploitation and begging are some of the most vulnerable young people in the UK, exploited in dangerous and unsuitable situations that puts them at great risk. This is now the second largest form of exploitation of children in the UK following sexual exploitation, yet it remains a hidden and unrecognised problem.

“The RACE in Europe Project has revealed shocking statistics about the number of children exploited in this way – toddlers and young children forced to beg on the streets, teenagers locked into residential houses to grow drugs for criminal gangs, groups of children moved around the country to pickpocket and steal like Fagan’s children in Oliver Twist’s Victorian Britain.

“Yet instead of being protected and given support following years of abuse, they are frequently treated as criminals and re-victimised by the justice system. It is simply not acceptable that this is happening in the UK and we must respond urgently to ensure practitioners recognise this growing form of modern slavery and respond appropriately to protect these children from future harm.”

The report analyses the phenomenon of trafficking into crime such as cannabis cultivation, ATM theft, pickpocketing, bag-snatching, counterfeit DVD selling, benefit fraud and forced sham marriage, as well as being forced to beg.

It exposes the dearth of systematic information and awareness about this type of exploitation amongst policy makers and justice system authorities, with very few cases reported in official statistics and many victims misidentified as offenders. 

The report concludes that although legislative and law enforcement tools exist at the EU level, they are underused to counter this form of trafficking. 

It recommends that states should fully reflect the EU Directive on Trafficking, and especially non-punishment provisions, in national legislation and action plans to tackle trafficking. 

It also recommends to make a full use of tools available under Europol and Eurojust such as Joint Investigation Teams and ensure that trafficking victims are protected and their full rights are respected.

Klara Skrivankova, Europe Programme and Advocacy Coordinator at Anti-Slavery International, said:

“The report shows how little attention we pay to people who are trafficked and forced into doing things they never consented to. We need to look for the crime behind the crime to uncover the real criminals. 

“In order to be able to do that, we need policies and laws that will help to deal with this dilemma and give the tools to the police and protection to the victims. No victim should be prosecuted for crimes they have committed under duress while the criminals enjoy freedom.”