Child trafficking referrals increased by 30% to 1,278 in 2016, the highest on record according to the latest figures from the National Crime Agency. 

The National Referral Mechanism Statistics: End of Year Summary 2016 – the UK’s annual report on all victims of trafficking referred to the UK Government’s official identification system – recorded a total number of 3,805 potential victims of trafficking in 2016, a 17% increase on 2015. 

More than a third of all potential victims of trafficking were children aged 18 and under, with a majority of children exploited in labour exploitation, which includes forced criminality, such as cannabis cultivation. 

While numbers of potential victims of trafficking increased, positive conclusive decisions, which enable victims to access support, decreased to the lowest point in NRM history to 635, compared with 1,028 the previous year. 

All reported forms of exploitation affecting children – domestic servitude, labour exploitation, sexual exploitation (non-UK national) and sexual exploitation (UK national) – increased by considerable percentages, indicating a worrying diffusion of the types of abuses suffered by children.  

UK national children abused in sexual exploitation represented the largest increase in reported child victims of trafficking, showing a staggering 104.8% jump on the previous year, which it is hoped reflects a growing awareness that child sexual exploitation often manifests in the form of trafficking. 

The United Kingdom featured as the most prominent country of origin for trafficked children – a total of 255 reported cases – followed by Albania (227), Vietnam (227), Afghanistan (74), Eritrea (48), Nigeria (43) and Iran (42). 

Countries affected by conflicts, including Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and Syria, all featured highly in the figures, indicating that children fleeing war and instability are also vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. 

Speaking to The Independent, Chloe Setter, Head of Policy, Advocacy & Campaigns, ECPAT UK, said:

“These statistics show that there has been an significant increase in trafficked children in the UK, but this is far short of the Government’s own estimates of the number of victims. This means that there are thousands of children who have not actually been identified and who are likely still in situations of horrific exploitation. 

“The National Referral Mechanism in its current form is an ineffective tool that fails to accurately identify the true number of trafficked children in the UK and fails to provide meaningful support to those affected. ECPAT UK is calling for a complete overhaul of the way the system works so that, instead of being a tick box for data collection, it becomes a child-focused tool to protect young victims, deliver effective support and prevent further abuse.”