Northern Ireland has become the first country in the UK to introduce legal guardianship for trafficked and separated children, marking a major campaign success for ECPAT UK.

This week the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill in Northern Ireland, which began as a Private Member’s Bill from Lord Morrow, was given Royal Assent.

ECPAT UK worked closely with the Law Centre (NI) and Commissioner for Children and Young People to ensure an amendment to the Bill on legal guardianship was successfully included and passed, including delivering a keynote speech to Lord Morrow and a group of key partners in Belfast in September 2014.

The Bill now gives trafficked and separated children who arrive in Northern Ireland without a parent, or primary caregiver, an independent legal guardian to be ‘on their side’ and to help children navigate the complexities of their situation.

ECPAT UK has campaigned for 10 years on legal guardianship, which is a requirement in the EU Directive on Trafficking and an obligation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 2011, ECPAT UK secured the signatures of 735,889 people supporting our call for legal guardianship for trafficked children.

In Northern Ireland, an independent legal guardian will be employed by a registered charity to ensure that all separated and trafficked children have someone with legal responsibility for them and to act in their best interests. Legal guardians will support children to access their rights to services and support to help rebuild their lives, including educational, medical, practical and legal assistance. Importantly, guardians will have statutory powers ensuring they have the ability to work effectively with public authorities, challenge poor practices and hold authorities accountable in their duty to protect and safeguard children from harm. Provision has also been made for extending the guardian until the child reaches the age of 21.

“This is a landmark step in the protection of trafficked and separated children in the UK, who have a range of complex needs and require an independent guardian to ensure these are met,” said Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy & Campaigns (Child Trafficking), ECPAT UK. “Northern Ireland is leading the way in its response to trafficked and separated children. ECPAT UK will continue to push the rest of the UK to fulfil its obligations and replicate these measures in both the Modern Slavery Bill (England and Wales) and the Scottish Human Trafficking Bill to protect these vulnerable children.”