Seeing the Invisible: Identifying Child Trafficking in the Modern World

13th Feb 2018

While identification of trafficked children has improved, more needs to be done to eradicate the practice. But, with Brexit potentially leading to tighter borders, many more children could be at risk.

In 2014-15, 590 children were identified as being trafficked or suspected of being trafficked, with the majority of cases – 75% involving local authorities in London, the South East, East Anglia and the Midlands.

Yet the problem isn’t solved once children are identified. Over a quarter of children went missing from local authorities, even after support was in place,1 indicating just how entrenched the fear of the traffickers is in these at-risk and vulnerable children.

The pathway to support is convoluted, says SharedVision’s Rachel Maloney. The National Referral Mechanism should trigger a process of identification and help that could see the child placed in foster care or supported accommodation. “With any process, it’s only as good as the people involved with it,” she says.

“Once you’re aware of something you can refer in, but you also need to think about the support that’s there for the children, or the protection that’s there for the children. It’s clear, with the high numbers that subsequently go missing, that things aren’t working as well as they should.”

One of the big issues is around dispersal of trafficked children, says Rachel. This sees children moved around the country by the local authority, spreading the burden from port towns and authorities which are the biggest identifiers of children trafficked into the country. This was implemented in July 2016 by the Home Office, partly in response to the Syrian refugee crisis that affected Europe. Its implementation was designed to ease the pressure placed on Kent and Croydon in particular.

While well-intentioned, the initiative does have drawbacks, says Rachel; not least of all, the need for access to specialist professionals which may simply be unavailable in areas with little access in understanding the complex needs of trafficked children.

“If those local authorities only have 2-3 trafficked children, they’re not going to be set up to meet the needs of the children,” says Rachel. “It might take the pressure off Kent – which is stretched to the limits in terms of resources – but Kent, for example, also has the expertise of supporting unaccompanied children for many years.”

“The result is additional community resources have started to emerge, and this brings with it additional knowledge and resources, which just aren’t available in some areas. This then increases the likelihood of children being re-trafficked,” she warned.

When a trafficked child does go missing, the local authority has a legal responsibility to report it, yet it’s difficult to know whether those children would have simply gone missing or have been re-trafficked. This means any statistics on re-trafficking are open to interpretation.

Advocating for change

Work is being done to improve the relationship with trafficked children, however. A pilot programme of advocates will hopefully be rolled out nationwide, after positive experience, for example.

Here, a one-year trial of the Independent Child Trafficking Advocates (ICTA) service was completed by 23 local authority areas in England. In total 158 children were allocated to the trial – 86 children to the advocacy group and 72 children to the comparator group.

The report into the trial made a number of key findings, including:

  • Children in the advocacy group were very positive about their advocate, saying they felt that the advocate was on their side during meetings, and that they were reliable and trustworthy.
  • Stakeholders – including social care, criminal justice and immigration – were largely positive about the advocacy service. The main areas where stakeholders felt that advocates added value were:
    • building trusting and credible relationships with the children and other stakeholders;
    • sharing expertise and knowledge of trafficking with practitioners across domains;
    • helping the children to navigate through complex circumstances;
    • speaking up for the children when necessary and acting in the child’s best interests;
    • maintaining a momentum in a case that was suitable to the child’s needs;
    • improving the quality of decision making.

“It’s a vast subject – and very complex in regards to what works,” Rachel says. “What might work for a young Vietnamese girl might not work for a young Albanian boy, as they’ll face different risks.

“It’s great that the government has recognised the value of independent advocates for children, and I’d love to see that continued and strengthened, with the right support available for foster Carers and Local Authorities.

“These children will often be told that their families aren’t safe – so how do you counter that, unless you have a system around that child that allows them to be able to trust in the support and protection available ?”

By getting this right we can, hopefully, bring trafficking to a grinding halt.

Home Office (Dec 2015)- Evaluation of Independent Child Trafficking Advocates trial: Final Report