Mental Health Awareness Week 2022

SPACE TO THRIVE: we need more support for child victims of trafficking and exploitation to recover from trauma and abuse

Child trafficking and exploitation is child abuse and involves egregious and extreme crimes against children and major violations of children’s human rights and integrity. Children and young people who have been trafficked and exploited are subject to a range of harms including physical and emotional trauma, humiliation, violence, degradation associated with treatment as a commodity, and unrelenting fear. Their right to be and feel safe and to recover is critical.

“My inner world has changed. The things around me have a different colour; everything seems to be dark grey…” (Young victim of trafficking and exploitation)

Children and young people who have been trafficked and exploited are often deeply affected by the intensely traumatic experiences that they have witnessed or lived through. This form of abuse presents serious risks to children’s and young people’s physical, psychological, spiritual, social and emotional development and their overall mental health and wellbeing.

“Sometimes when I am in the street I feel that everyone is looking at me and I want to shout. I’m tired of being afraid…” (Young victim of trafficking and exploitation)

Accessible and timely support is key for all children and young people, but there is a national crisis in young people’s mental health – more young people need support and there is not enough of it. Last week young people and many charities that support them wrote to the Chancellor about it, calling for a national network.

For children and young people who have been exploited the need for support is urgent. Accessing mainstream mental health support can be made more difficult because of a lack of understanding of the behaviour patterns that their experiences, trauma and pain can shape in order to survive their abuse and exploitation.  

Contained, accessible and safe spaces offer a way towards empowerment, self-expression, acceptance, healing and recovery, as well as a starting point from which children and young people can begin to understand their own mental health and wellbeing.

At ECPAT UK, we understand that non-stigmatising child-centred, culturally competent and accessible therapeutic approaches can offer valuable support to child victims of trafficking and exploitation.

“I was feeling down and depressed… I was thinking too much about what had happened to me… [ECPAT UK] referred me for counselling. It was very helpful, because I overcame a lot of things and I learned a lot of things as well. I wouldn’t be me now without this kind of thing.” (Sarah, ECPAT UK Youth Programme member)

Child victims of trafficking and mental health:

  • Child victims of trafficking and exploitation need specialist support to help them recover from the trauma and abuse they have experienced
  • Child victims struggle to access adequate mental health services through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS). When children do access these services, there are significant barriers to engagement, particularly for migrant children1
  • Research has found that the most commonly recorded diagnoses for trafficked children are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (22%) and affective disorders (22%)2
  • There is no provision in the UK, despite one pilot in London and funding for its development in Scotland, for child victims to access a Barnahus or ‘child house’ – a space to give evidence, receive medical care, take part in decisions about their protection and get support to recover from the trauma they have experienced. Nor are there any other multidisciplinary and interagency interventions for child victims organised in a child-friendly setting.3
  • The culture of disbelief child victims face regarding their age, experience of abuse and protracted immigration battles and immigration limbo can deteriorate their mental health and lead to re-trafficking, self-harm and suicide.4

Case study

Asim is a 17-year-old child victim of trafficking for sexual exploitation with a positive reasonable grounds decision from the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). He arrived in the UK in December 2018 and has been looked after by the local authority ever since. He waited for over a year for a conclusive grounds decision and never received access to counselling services. He was referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) but did not receive assistance: his initial referral was rejected (because it was deemed not to meet the high threshold for treatment) and his second referral (in which Asim’s GP specified more clearly all the details of their concerns) expired because Asim transitioned into adulthood while waiting for treatment. He was then referred to a charity which offers therapeutic services but due to lack of capacity they could not accept the referral. Children are not provided with any specific or targeted trafficking-related support, even once they are referred into the NRM and receive a positive reasonable grounds decision. 

In June, ECPAT UK will be fundraising for Thrive, a new support service provided as part of the ECPAT UK Youth Programme, offering one-to-one and group therapy sessions for young people who are victims of trafficking and exploitation. During the Big Give Champions for Children campaign week, we’ll be inviting supporters to learn more about the importance of creating safe, therapeutic spaces for young people who have experienced trauma; promoting wellbeing and providing mental health support. We’ll be reflecting on therapeutic approaches that promote recovery, and celebrating better futures for children and young people by championing mental health support for everyone.


  2. Psychological consequences of child trafficking: An historical cohort study of trafficked children in contact with secondary mental health services. / Ottisova, Livia; Smith, Patrick Anthony; Hitesh, Shetty; Stahl, Daniel Richard; Downs, Jonathan Muir; Whitaker, Sian. In: PLoS ONE, Vol.12, No. 3, 08.03.2019, p. e0192321.