Exposing modern day slavery in the UK
This week’s report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) severely criticises the government’s approach to tackling human trafficking, saying that ministers are 'clueless' about the scale of trafficking in the UK. The report, It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to fight modern slavery, which also considers child trafficking, brings into sharp relief the inherent problems in putting children’s safety and well-being in second place to controlling borders.
The report highlights cases of how children, who had been deprived of their childhood by the horrendous abuse they suffered at the hands of traffickers, were further mistreated and criminalised by statutory agencies. Instead of being protected they are branded ‘illegal immigrants’, and are prosecuted for immigration offences or criminal activity they committed while being exploited.
Systemic failures in protecting lone children from abroad
Beyond the lack of effective identification of child victims of trafficking, the report also documents how children are further let down because they don't get the support they need.
This lack of support is something our services come across often. One of our projects in the West Midlands runs a weekly youth club supporting unaccompanied refugee and migrant children including young victims of trafficking and exploitation. Through this universal service we come into contact with many young people who have been victims of exploitative labour.
Many of the young people supported by our services in the West Midlands are in local authority care yet they live in places – such as unsupported accommodation, hostels and B&Bs – rather than in foster care.
This is despite government guidance which says that children’s services must only provide children with supported accommodation which is suitable and of high quality and that B&B accommodation is not suitable any children.
Often a barrier for getting effective support is that the local authority who should be caring for them is disputing their age. This leaves some destitute and at risk of further exploitation.
In addition, practitioners say that some social workers make racist remarks towards the young people they support. Under such circumstances children find it difficult to trust their corporate parent, which is vital in breaking the links with traffickers and those who wish to harm or exploit young people.
'These are the only two hours in my week where I feel at peace'
The weekly youth club provides a safe haven for many socially isolated young people who have no one else to turn to for help or nowhere else to go where they can feel comfortable and carefree.
One young person described the project's importance to his life: 'These are the only two hours in my week where I feel at peace and just be myself'.
Promising support while cutting legal aid
Despite assurances that the government takes its responsibilities towards refugee and migrant children seriously, this is difficult to see in policy and practice.
This year children are losing their right to free legal advice and representation in their immigration cases. According to the government’s figures thousands of children who need advice in their own right to resolve their immigration issues will be unable to get it unless they claim asylum.
However, from our work we know that many child victims of trafficking and exploitation, or those who have been abandoned in this country by their carers, will not have an asylum claim. They may have a claim based on their welfare or their right to private life in the UK. In such cases they will not get legal aid.
This is likely to exacerbate problems for children, rather than make them better.
Caught up in 'illegal migration'
Unfortunately, children and young people – who have been trafficked into this country, arriving on false documents and who are prosecuted for offences committed under the command of traffickers – may be deemed ‘illegal immigrants’ or are categorised as foreign national prisoners by statutory agencies.
The government’s policies of limiting migrants’ access to support and vital services such as health care and legal advice are also likely to have negative consequences for trafficked children as well as other lone migrant children in the UK.
Without access to legal redress more children are likely to be exploited, or at risk of being returned to countries where they have no lasting connection or support network and where they may be at risk of being re-trafficked.
We urge the government again to reconsider its position with respect to legal aid, as well as consider more broadly how its immigration policies affect children, whose welfare they need to promote.