Will the government protect trafficked children?
The government plans to introduce a Modern Slavery Bill at the next Queen’s speech. A panel, led by Frank Field MP, is consulting on the upcoming bill and they will publish their recommendations to the government by Christmas.
We welcome the government's plans for new legislation and believe this is an ideal opportunity to put in place measures that would better protect children who have been victims of human trafficking - some of the very most vulnerable children and young people in our country.
In our oral evidence to the panel we called for the establishment of a system of independent guardians for all separated children including potential victims of trafficking. We also recommended that legal aid needs to be protected for all separated children to make sure they can access free advice and representation when they need it.
Guardianship for separated children
In recent years there has been increasing pressure on government to establish a system of guardians for separated children, including victims of trafficking. These children are alone in a foreign country, do not speak the language or understand the culture. They have no one legally responsible for their care, speaking up for them and protecting their best interests. This makes them incredibly vulnerable to exploitation and serious harm.
An independent guardian can make a major difference in a young person’s life. They can ensure that children understand their rights, have their voice heard in decisions that affect them, and are supported through the different legal processes that they are engaged in.
The case for guardians is supported by many international and domestic bodies, including the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Council of Europe expert group on trafficking and most recently the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its inquiry into unaccompanied migrant children and young people. It is also a long-standing position supported by the Refugee Children’s Consortium – a coalition of over 40 non-governmental organisations working with children caught up in the immigration system.
Protecting legal aid for trafficked children
From this April, trafficked children can no longer get free legal advice and representation with their immigration case – unless they have an asylum claim or have been recognised as a victim by the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). However many children don’t qualify for asylum and are not referred to the NRM.
This means that many young victims will miss out on this vital support to resolve their immigration issues and will remain undocumented. This in turn means they will be unable to access vital support and services, and will be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Legal aid residence test
Furthermore, the government has proposed introducing a residence test which is due to come into effect in 2014. This is very likely to create further barriers for trafficked children to getting the support they need.
Under the residence test, child victims of trafficking would only be able to get legal aid in very limited circumstances. For example, if a trafficked child is homeless but the local authority refuses to take them into care or provide them with safe accommodation or if the local authority disputes the child’s age, they would not get legal aid to challenge this decision.
Our recent report Still at Risk on the care arrangements of trafficked children highlighted that having their age disputed by the local authority is a key problem for child victims and determines their access to adequate care. In some cases children who had wrongly been assessed as adults were put in immigration detention and prison custody with adults, although they were later found to be children.
The government has the power to bring back into scope legal aid in children’s immigration cases and to abandon its plans to introduce a residence test. We urge the government to take this opportunity to protect the vital safety net of legal aid for all separated children including potential victims of trafficking and to establish a system of guardianship. Taken together these measures could go a long way in protecting victims of these heinous crimes and ensure that children get the lasting protection they so desperately need.