‘Stephen’ was identified as a former child victim of trafficking but now faces the threat of removal to Vietnam. His case has rightly received significant public attention, highlighting the urgent need to reform the system of support (the National Referral Mechanism) for other children who have been victims of modern slavery in the UK.

An orphan aged just 10 years old, Stephen was trafficked out of Vietnam to the UK. He was locked away in houses converted into cannabis farms and forced to work as a gardener producing the drug for sale in the UK. He worked long hours for no pay and in extremely dangerous conditions, mixing chemicals that made him ill, getting burnt by hot lamps used to grow the plants and receiving electric shocks from wires. He was kept alone most of the time, completely hidden from the public and received beatings from his traffickers. “I was like an animal, kept in a box,” he told The Guardian.  

At the age of 16, he was found by police and placed in foster care in the North East of England. Once there, he was able to go to school, make friends, and begin to put his life back together. But on turning 17 and a half, he lost his automatic right to remain in the country and applied for asylum. However, his application has recently been refused, meaning he now faces removal to Vietnam, despite having no family or support network there, and despite the known risk of re-trafficking.

Sadly, cases like Stephen’s are not uncommon. Alarming numbers of Vietnamese children are trafficked into the UK for the purposes of cannabis cultivation, as recently highlighted in ECPAT UK’s short film. Once in the UK, children are identified as trafficking victims through the the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which is the current mechanism for identification and support of trafficking victims. But going through this process and being recognised as a victim, like Stephen, does not guarantee any specialist support or long-term leave to remain in the UK. This makes it very difficult for young people to build a stable life and plan for their future. These young people, having begun to recover from traumatic experiences of abuse, are then often forced to return to countries where they have no family, few support structures and are likely to be further exploited. Indeed, Stephen hasn’t been back to his birth country since he was just 10.

Stephen, and others like him who have suffered years of exploitation, require high levels of dedicated and specialist support in order to meet their needs, help them to rebuild their lives and become healthy, happy young adults. Immigration objectives should not be a factor in any asylum decision for these young people. This is why ECPAT UK is calling for the NRM for children to be reformed to ensure that children who are identified as victims of trafficking are entitled to proper, specialist support, including a grant of leave to remain in the UK. In October 2017, a series of reforms to the NRM were announced, but no substantial changes for child victims were included.

Children identified as trafficking victims are among the most vulnerable in our society and those most in need of long-term protection. The system built for their protection requires urgent reform so that Stephen and the thousands of others like him are allowed to rebuild their lives and plan for a better future.

Anyone wishing to support Stephen, whose appeal against his negative asylum decision is in early February, can sign the petition to overturn the Home Office’s rejection decision.

Update: Stephen's appeal hearing scheduled for early February was adjourned and Stephen is awaiting a decision about his case. 

ENDS

Press contacts

Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy & Campaigns, ECPAT UK: 07890 120834 [email protected]