Trafficked children in UK “continue to be exploited”

30 Jul, 2018 | Blogs, Education, Latest

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To mark the World Day against Trafficking in Persons, Ben Lewis takes a look at the ongoing issue of child trafficking in the UK.

The United Nations has made this date, 30th July, the World Day against Trafficking in Persons. Trafficking is defined by the UN Trafficking in Persons protocol as acquiring, transferring or receiving people in order to exploit them, using some form of threat or coercion.

The UN points out that every country in the world is affected by human trafficking, and the United Kingdom is no exception. Even more unfortunately, age is no barrier to becoming a victim of trafficking, with children making up a disproportionate number of those who have been trafficked. To mark this day, we will look at the trafficking of children in the UK and how support needs to be improved.

Nearly half of victims of trafficking are children

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is the system which identifies victims of modern day slavery and trafficking. During 2017, there were 5,145 referrals to the NRM – up by 35% from the previous year. 41% of those were children. Not only is this a large proportion, but the number of potential trafficking victims who are children is rising far quicker than the number of victims overall – a 66% increase from 2016. For both adults and children, the most common type of exploitation is labour exploitation, but it is far more likely that the nature of the exploitation is unknown when children are the victim.

“every country in the world is affected by human trafficking, and the United Kingdom is no exception”

It doesn’t look like these trends are stopping any time soon; 711 children were referred to the NRM in the first three months of 2018, which is 44% of all the potential victims during that period. As we’ve written about before, increasing numbers of potential victims is a good thing if it reflects better reporting and awareness. It is still sobering, though, to realise that the data we are getting suggests there are many more children suffering through trafficking and modern slavery than we ever knew.

Many trafficked children are exploited for criminal activity

Whilst ‘trafficking’ calls to mind the movement of people from elsewhere in the world, trafficking also occurs within the UK. The Children’s Society has recently shed light on trafficking and exploitation of children occurring within the UK, commonly referred to as ‘county lines’. In this context, lines refers to a phone line used for the supply of illegal drugs. Gangs exploit children as young as 12, most commonly boys from very vulnerable backgrounds such as those who are in care or in poverty, by sending them to houses from which they are expected to sell drugs.

They are trafficked to these locations, stay in poor conditions and have to meet sales targets or face punishment. These children are groomed for the role, exploited and find themselves trapped by the gangs. An estimated 4,000 teenagers are believed to be exploited in this way in London alone. The saddest component of the experience of these children is that their trafficking and exploitation is not seen as such by authorities or the public at large. They are seen as having chosen a life of crime, not as the victims of terrible exploitation that they are.

Support for trafficked children needs to improve

The support given specifically for children who have been victims of trafficking or modern slavery has been described as “severely lacking and hugely inconsistent” by ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK). In October 2017, the government announced some limited improvements, including the introduction nationally of independent child trafficking advocates to support and give a voice to potential victims; testing of new support mechanisms; and improving how information is communicated to children.

“the number of potential trafficking victims who are children is rising far quicker than the number of victims overall”

However, there are still many weaknesses which have not been addressed, and organisations such as the Anti Trafficking Monitoring Group have tried to outline the challenges which remain. These include the burden falling on these abused children to prove their own abuse; the fact that the NRM system is separated from child protection systems and cannot provide the care needed; and the lack of an appeals process, with victims of trafficking who are not believed being left prey to continued exploitation. These are just a few of the many problems faced by children needing serious support at a time of enormous vulnerability.

On this World Day against Trafficking in Persons, it is important to try to put ourselves in the shoes of children who become victims of trafficking. Trapped in their exploitation, with their only escape a hugely complicated system they don’t understand which may not believe them anyway – it is truly a terrible position in which to even imagine oneself. And yet thousands of children in our own country live this reality. It certainly makes standing up for change to give these children a better chance even more urgent.

Ben Lewis is a member of René Cassin’s Modern Slavery Campaign Group and a PhD student at Imperial College London.

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