Too many trafficked children are not being adequately protected by the agencies that are supposed to be supporting them, reveals a new report published today.
The report, Still at Risk: A review of support for trafficked children (summary, full report) found that there have been some improvements with help for trafficked children. Yet far too many opportunities to protect them are being missed because of a culture of doubt and suspicion among professionals.
The jointly produced report by the Refugee Council and The Children’s Society, funded by the Home Office, highlighted that the focus was sometimes to punish rather than protect. Some trafficked children are being sent to adult prisons and immigration detention centres - rather than being placed in safe accommodation with full-time care - because of doubts over their real ages.
Trafficked children vulnerable to exploitation, abuse
Child trafficking involves the recruitment and movement of children for the purpose of exploiting them, including for domestic servitude, sexual exploitation or forced criminality.
There has been a growing awareness of trafficking in recent years. But the quality of support for these children varies greatly and government guidance on protecting trafficked children is not being implemented consistently, reveals Still at Risk.
This is resulting in trafficked children being left at risk of going missing from care and made vulnerable to further exploitation and abuse, including being re-trafficked.
Authorities often treat young people with suspicion, prejudice
Their vulnerability is increased by the fact that they do not speak the language, understand the culture or have anyone looking out for their interests. One young person interviewed for this research did not even know which country they were in. Another, who had been sentenced for an offence committed while they were trafficked, had no idea what crime they had pleaded guilty to or that they should not have been tried in the first place.
Still at Risk also found that the authorities are often too quick to criminalise these young people. Many felt they were treated with suspicion and prejudice, as if they were 'illegal immigrants'. They spoke of how little information they were given about their rights and what is available to them, including the right to go to school.
Support from social workers and local authorities was also inconsistent, leading to these young people being put in inappropriate housing, leaving them without the necessary support or supervision and at risk of going missing and being re-trafficked.
'More needs to be be done to keep trafficked children safe'
Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society said: 'A huge amount of work must be done to make sure incredibly vulnerable trafficked children are made safe from further exploitation and abuse. An important starting point is ending the ‘culture of disbelief’ that is stopping children’s needs being made the urgent priority they clearly are.
'It is vital that trafficked children are treated as victims of a crime - and not as criminals - by professionals responsible for their safety and welfare. Progress has been made in recent years, but much more needs to be done to keep trafficked children safe and help them rebuild their lives. We welcome the opportunity to continue working with the government to improve the support and care for trafficked children.'
Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council said: 'This report helps us to understand what support is needed to help children recover from their horrific experiences and learn to build trusting relationships with adults again. The current system is not doing this adequately; we need to get better at looking for the signs, helping children to escape and making sure that they no longer need to fear their traffickers. There’s plenty of room for improvement in current policy and practice. We look forward to working with government to make the necessary changes to ensure we do our very best to provide the children with the protection they need.'
Eradicating human trafficking
Mark Harper, Immigration Minister, said: 'The government commissioned this report as part of our wider work to better understand and eradicate all forms of human trafficking and we will look carefully at its findings.
'We are already taking action on a number of fronts. We are working with front line professionals to help them better identify and support potential victims, particularly children. The new National Crime Agency will, from next month, lead an enhanced and co-ordinated response to targeting trafficking gangs, and we will be overhauling and updating legislation by bringing forward a draft Modern Slavery Bill this session.
'We are committed to eliminating this abhorrent crime and recognise it will take time, effort and people at every level of society doing what they can to help.'
The charities interviewed young people who had been trafficked to England, local authorities and professionals to establish how these children are being treated once they flee their exploiters. The study also examines what needs to improve to make sure they are protected and kept safe.
For more information, please contact Beth Herzfeld in The Children’s Society media team. She can be reached by email or by telephone, 020 7841 4422 or 07775 812 357. For out-of-hours enquiries please call 07810 796 508.
Notes to editors
The UK Human Trafficking Centre’s annual assessment of the scale of trafficking reports that a total of 2,255 potential victims of human trafficking were identified in 2012 in the UK. Of these, 549 - or 24% - were children and the age of 99 potential victims was unknown. But this figure is likely to be the tip of the iceberg given that many child victims will not come to the attention of agencies that can help them. Even where they do, they may not be correctly identified as victims of a crime. The assessment highlights that 65% of the total number of potential victims of trafficking appears not to have been recorded on the National Referral Mechanism – the government’s central system for identifying victims of trafficking.
The Children’s Society wants to create a society where children and young people are valued, respected and happy. We are committed to helping vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, including children in care and young runaways. We give a voice to disabled children, help young refugees to rebuild their lives and provide relief for young carers. Through our campaigns and research, we seek to influence policy and perceptions so that young people have a better chance in life.
The Refugee Council is a human rights charity, independent of government, working to ensure refugees are given the protection that they need, are treated with the respect and understanding that they are entitled to, and that they are assured the same rights, opportunities and responsibilities as other members of society. Our Children’s Advisers work directly with separated children, helping them to access all the services they need. We employ two specialist Advisers to work specifically with trafficked children.
The Home Office commissioned the Refugee Council and The Children’s Society to conduct a scoping review of the practical care and safeguarding arrangements for trafficked children, and those who may have been trafficked, who are in the local authority care system.