19.4 The Problem of Child Trafficking
Last updated 23/09/2021
Why do people traffic children?
Most children are trafficked for financial gain. This can include payment from or to the child’s parents, and can involve the child in debt-bondage to the traffickers. In most cases, the trafficker also receives payment from those wanting to exploit the child once in the UK. Some trafficking is carried out by organised gangs. In other cases, individual adults or agents traffic children to the UK for their own personal gain3. The exploitation of trafficked children may be progressive. Children trafficked for domestic work may also be vulnerable to sexual exploitation or children initially trafficked for sexual exploitation may be resold.
Children may be used for:
- Sexual exploitation e.g.
- child sexual abuse
- child abuse images
- Domestic servitude e.g.
- undertaking domestic chores
- looking after young children
- Labour exploitation e.g.
- working in restaurants
- building sites
- Enforced criminality e.g.
- cannabis cultivation
- begging and pick pocketing
- drug dealing / trafficking
- for the purpose of benefit fraud
- Trade in human organs
This list above is not exhaustive and all cases should be treated on a case by case basis. Illegal adoption, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage could be indicators of trafficking in cases where any of the listed exploitation types in 4.1.2 have also occurred. Such cases would require careful exploration of the individual case circumstances. If a child has been trafficked for these purposes, the primary response should be to safeguard the welfare of the child. In such cases, the child may be treated as a victim of a crime under the following legislation listed (i.e. Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act 2007; Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 for England, Wales and Northern Ireland; Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005 and the Adoption Act 2002) rather than as victims of trafficking offences, unless there are clear indications of exploitation under the Convention (listed in 4.1.2). Where exploitation is present, statutory child protection and safeguarding responses should be applied, and a referral should be made to the National Referral Mechanism for a decision on the status of the potential victim of trafficking.
How are children recruited and controlled?
Traffickers recruit their victims using a variety of methods. Some children are abducted or kidnapped, although most children are trapped in subversive ways - e.g:
- Children are promised education or what is regarded as respectable work – such as in restaurants or as domestic servants.
- Parents are persuaded that their children will have a better life elsewhere.
Many children travel on false documents or enter clandestinely without documentation. Even those whose documents are genuine may not have access to them. One way that traffickers control children is to retain their passports and threaten children that should they escape, they will be deported. The creation of a false identity for a child can give a trafficker direct control over every aspect of a child’s life, for example, by claiming to be a parent or guardian.
Even before they travel, children may be abused and exploited to ensure that the trafficker’s control continues after the child is transferred to someone else’s care - e.g:
- Confiscation of the child’s identity documents;
- Threats of reporting the child to the authorities;
- Violence, or threats of violence, towards the child and/or his/her family;
- Keeping the child socially isolated;
- Keeping the child locked up;
- Telling some children that they owe large sums of money and that they must work to pay this off;
- Depriving the child of money; and
- Voodoo or witchcraft, which may be used to frighten children into thinking that they and their families will die if they tell anyone about the traffickers
The traffickers might be part of a well organised criminal network, or they might be individuals involved in only one of the stages of the operation, such as the provision of false documentation, transport, or places where the child’s presence can be concealed.
How are children brought to the UK?
Any port of entry into the UK might be used by traffickers. There is evidence that some children are trafficked via numerous transit countries and many may travel through other European Union countries before arriving in the UK.
Some may have entered the UK legitimately under any category of the Immigration Rules, such as students or visitors. Others may have entered the UK by clandestine means believing that they were going into illegal but lucrative work. Whist others will have residence rights as a result of being EEA or UK nationals.
Children may enter accompanied by adult/s or as unaccompanied minors.
The recent learning experience from Paladin through Operation Newbridge indicated that, as checks have improved at the larger ports of entry, such as Heathrow and Gatwick airports, traffickers are starting to use smaller ports or other regional airports. Traffickers are also known to use the Eurostar rail service and ferries to UK sea ports.
There are many legitimate reasons for children being brought to the UK, such as economic migration with their family, education, re-unification with family or fleeing a war torn country. Some children will have travelled with their parent/s.
However, a number of children arrive in the UK accompanied by adults who are either not related to them or in circumstances which raise child protection concerns. For example, there may be little evidence of any pre-existing relationship or even an absence of any knowledge of the sponsor. There may be unsatisfactory accommodation arranged in the UK, or perhaps no evidence of parental permission for the child to travel to the UK or stay with the sponsor. These irregularities may be the only indication that the child could be a victim of trafficking.
To curb illegal migration and improve children’s safeguards, global visa regulations have been in place since February 2006. A photograph of the child is now shown on the visa, together with the name and passport number of the adult/s who have been given permission to travel with the child.
Some accompanied children may apply for asylum claiming to be unaccompanied, after being told by their trafficker that by doing so they will be granted permission to reside in the UK and be entitled to claim welfare benefits.
Groups of unaccompanied children often come to the notice of the UK Borders Agency (UKBA). Unaccompanied children may come to the UK seeking asylum (Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children – UASC), or they may be here to attend school or join their family. A child may be the subject of a private fostering arrangement. See Private Fostering Procedure (Section 22).
If the child is unaccompanied and not travelling to his or her parent, or if there are some concerns over the legitimacy or suitability of the proposed arrangement for the child’s care in the UK, s/he will be referred to LA children’s social care by UKBA.
Some groups of children will avoid contact with authorities because they are instructed to do so by their traffickers. In other cases the traffickers insist that the child applies for asylum as this gives the child a legitimate right of temporary leave to remain in the UK.
It is suspected that significant numbers of children are referred to LA children’s social care after applying for asylum and some even register at school for up to a term, before disappearing again. It is thought that they are trafficked internally within the UK or out of the UK to other European countries.
Trafficking within the UK
There is increasing evidence that children (both of UK and other citizenship) are being trafficked internally within the UK. The list of indicators in the Assessment Checklist of section 1a of the Trafficked Children Toolkit should help identify these children.
Children may be trafficked internally for a variety of reasons, many of them similar to the reasons children are trafficked between countries. Where children have been violently controlled by criminal gangs for sexual exploitation, the children may in some cases have been moved between several locations to retain control of their victims. The majority of these types of victims are girls although a number may include boys.
Whilst evidence so far generally relates to girls, boys may also be trafficked within the UK.
The impact of trafficking on children’s health and welfare
All children who have been exploited will suffer some form of physical or mental harm. Usually, the longer the exploitation, the more health problems that will be experienced. Although in some cases, such as contracting AIDS or the extreme abuse suffered by Victoria Climbie, fatal injuries happen very quickly.
Trafficked children are not only deprived of their rights to health care and freedom from exploitation and abuse, but are also not provided with access to education. The creation of a false identity and implied criminality of the children, together with the loss of family and community, may seriously undermine their sense of self-worth. At the time they are found, trafficked children may not show any obvious signs of distress or imminent harm, they may be vulnerable to particular types of abuse and may continue to experience the effects of their abuse in the future.
This can include:
- Inappropriate chastisement, not receiving routine and emergency medical attention (partly through a lack of care about their welfare and partly because of the need for secrecy surrounding their circumstances);
- Physical beatings and rape;
- Addiction to drugs (some trafficked children are subdued with drugs, which they then become dependent on). They are then effectively trapped within the cycle of exploitation, continuing to work in return for a supply of drugs;
- Alcohol addiction;
- Stress / post traumatic stress (PTSD) related physical disorders such as skin diseases, migraine, backache etc.
Some forms of harm might be linked to a belief in spirit possession
Emotional and psychological abuse
Emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child, including trafficking.
Trafficked children may:
- Feel disorientated after leaving their family environment, no matter how impoverished and difficult. This disorientation can be compounded for some children who have to assume a new identity or have no identity at all;
- Feel isolated from the local community in the UK by being kept away from school and because they cannot speak English;
- Fear both the adults who have physical control of them and the threat that they will be reported to the authorities as immigration criminals;
- Lose their trust in all adults;
- Have low self-esteem and feel the experience has ruined them for life socially and psychologically. They may become depressed and sometimes suicidal;
- See also the LSCB Child Sexual Exploitation Procedure www.seftonlscb.co.uk
- Worry about people in their families and communities knowing what has happened to them, and become afraid to go home; and
- Feel like criminals as a result of the new identity forced on them, which can have long term consequences for their adult lives.
All children who have been exploited are likely to suffer some form of mental harm, usually the longer the exploitation, the more mental health problems that will be experienced.
These can include:
- Psychological distress owing to their sense of powerlessness. In many cases involving violence and deprivation at the hands of their traffickers, which can be extreme, it will take the form of post traumatic stress disorder;
- Dependent relationships with their abusers;
- Flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks, irritability and other symptoms of stress, such as nervous breakdowns;
- A loss of ability to concentrate; and
- Becoming anti-social, aggressive and angry, and/or fearful and nervous – finding it difficult to relate to others, including in the family and at work.
Trafficked children may be sexually abused as part of being controlled or because they are vulnerable. In many cases, sexual exploitation is the purpose of the trafficking. Children being sexually exploited are at risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS; and for girls there is the risk of an unwanted early pregnancy and possible damage to their sexual and reproductive health.
Trafficked children may also suffer neglect. In particular, they may not receive routine and emergency medical attention (partly through a lack of care about their welfare and partly because of the need for secrecy surrounding their circumstances). They may also be subject to physical, sensory and food deprivation. Trafficked and exploited children are deprived of their rights to health and freedom from exploitation and abuse, and to education and related life opportunities.