Reviewing support for trafficked children
Every year hundreds of children are being trafficked into the UK. They are forced into a range of horrific abuse, including domestic servitude, forced criminality and sexual exploitation. Despite this, when they escape or are found, many are not getting the protection they need from the agencies that are supposed to be supporting them.
We teamed up with the Refugee Council to find out more about the care trafficked young people are getting. Our report ‘Still at Risk: A review of support for trafficked children’ found that while there have been some improvements in recent years in support for trafficked children, far too many opportunities to protect them are being missed because of a culture of doubt and suspicion among professionals.
Commissioned by the Home Office, this study is one of the few that has interviewed trafficked children about their experiences of how they were treated by the various UK services that are supposed to help them. We also interviewed local authorities and professionals across England who work with these children, to get a clear sense of what is working well and what needs to be improved.
Trafficked children’s experiences: fear and confusion
The young people we spoke to felt traumatised, isolated and scared while they were trafficked. As one young person recalled: ‘. . . I would cry every day, I can’t eat, I can’t do nothing. One day I said . . . I feel like killing myself – better than this kind of life’.
Even after they escaped, they were not able to fully recover from the trauma because they often did not get the help they needed. Their problems were made worse because they were often unable to understand English or the cultural context – like understanding what a social worker or lawyer is. Some didn’t even know which country they were in.
Suspicion and doubt
The young people said that they were treated with suspicion and prejudice. In many of the cases, failure to recognise that they were children led to repeated age assessments. This resulted in a lack of trust between the children and those responsible for their care.
As one young person we interviewed said of her experience: ‘Social services asked my foster mum to throw me out on the street. They say because now they done the age assessment and also because you are illegal immigrant that they don’t want to have anything to do with me.’
Some of the young people were sent to adult prison or to an immigration removal centre because their age was not believed. Those who went to prison were prosecuted for using false documents that they had been given by their traffickers.
This led them to be very confused about what was happening to them during the court process. In one case the young person didn’t even know what she had pled guilty to: ‘…the solicitor asked me to plead guilty, I pleaded guilty, I don’t know what ‘guilty’ means.’
Varying levels of support and care
Even when the children’s ages are believed, some were still denied the vital services they were entitled to, including going to school or being properly housed because of a shortage of appropriate accommodation.
Young people experienced frequent changes in social workers meaning they could not build up trust and understanding with one person. Interviews with professionals highlighted that there was a widespread lack of understanding about trafficked children’s needs among different agencies which come into contact with children and young people.
These children’s difficulties were found to become even more acute when they reach adulthood as turning 18 can trigger a change in the type of support they receive and how they are treated by the immigration system.
As a result, as one solicitor said: ‘They can end up being here with no recourse to public funds, no housing – they are then spectacularly vulnerable to being criminally-exploited.’
What needs to change?
The government is already working to increase understanding and awareness of child trafficking. But much more needs to be done if the child victims of this crime are to receive the support they need and be kept safe from being re-trafficked and recover from their abuse.
Even though local authorities are required to look after these children, policies are not being consistently implemented. It is vital these children get the help they need regardless of their nationality, documentation or immigration status.
It is crucial the government provides each of these vulnerable children with one independent trusted adult from the moment they come to the authorities’ attention who they can build lasting a relationship with. This person can act on their behalf and help guide them through the complexities of the immigration and justice systems.
These children need to be kept safe so they can recover from the trauma they have suffered and rebuild their lives. Keeping them safe is everybody’s business.
Find out more
Read Still at Risk: A review of support for trafficked children, our joint report with the Refugee Council
Learn more about our direct practice work with young refugees
Find out about our policy work supporting young refugees and migrants