Seeing the Invisible: identifying child trafficking in the modern world

“Modern slavery and trafficking is happening everywhere. It’s around us in the most normal of places. Yet it’s hard to see it – it’s almost unseen – in the normality of everyday life.”

Shared Vision’s Rachel Maloney is passionate about ending child trafficking. Yet how do you stop something that is difficult to see and often poorly understood? That is the task facing social workers and other professionals intent on tackling this challenging problem.

In 2016, the National Crime Agency (NCA) received 3,805 cases through the National Referral Mechanism – a 17% increase on 2015 figures. Of these, 1,278 cases referred to children and young people – a 30% increase on 2015. The figures for 2015 were themselves a 40% increase on 2014’s statistics, showing this is a growing trend in which local authorities are only just beginning to get to grips with. End of year summary documents from the NCA are availble online for 2015 and 2016.

The challenges facing social workers are manifold – and identifying who is at risk is only the start of the potential problems. While experience has taught social workers that certain groups are at higher risk of being trafficked – Vietnamese, Albanian and Nigerian children have been more frequently trafficked into the UK compared to other nationalities, indigenous children are also at risk – trafficking is often part of a much wider problem, linked to organised crime, gangs, modern slavery and the drugs industry.

Rachel states that we need to understand “Child trafficking within a societal and political context, Vietnamese young people, can be for example exploited via nail bars, the sex trade – and often the two things are linked together, whilst Vietnamese boys will be made to work in cannabis cultivation. They might be in houses that are just used as cannabis farms they have no way out, and are deprived of light and nutrition. And also, they often have no idea that what they are doing is a criminal act – it’s something they are forced to do.”

This in turn means young people – who are already the victims of trafficking – risk being caught up in the criminal justice system if caught by authorities. 2011 guidance from the CPS should stop this from happening, according to Rachel, an increasing number of young trafficked people are finding themselves in youth offending institutions, let down by a justice system that has failed to understand their tragic predicament.

“We have legislation and government guidance to protect trafficked children and young people, it’s just not being used effectively” says Rachel. “Politically, the government is not committed to seeing this purely as an exploitation issue. This means that the harm these children have experienced, the on going risk they are exposed to, results in their needs not being met. They get lost within an under resourced care, and immigration system that is often poorly equipped to understand the trauma they have faced. And I think the wider political-societal issue compounds this. For example, the concept of a deserving indigenous child and an undeserving unaccompanied child?”

Section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act has given social workers a way to prevent trafficked children from being criminalised – but its success has been patchy – and very much dependent on the knowledge of the worker in question. Section 45 – the so called ‘Defence Clause’ – says that a trafficked victim is not guilty of an offence if:

  • The person is under the age of 18 when the person does the act which constitutes the offence
  • The person does that act as a direct consequence of the person being, or having been, a victim of slavery or a victim of relevant exploitation, and
  • A reasonable person in the same situation as the person and having the person’s relevant characteristics would do that act.

The problem is, according to Rachel, that not all  youth offending teams are  aware of the clause, or the National Referral Mechanism, so fundamentally this is a knowledge issue. “Knowing this could really strengthen a young person’s case if they end up in court,” she says.

Improving understanding of child trafficking

Yet, just as social care professionals are now understanding more about where trafficked children are coming from, work is taking place quietly up and down the country to give them the confidence and skills to tackle the problem.

Pilot schemes run by charities like Barnardo’s are helping to give professionals and foster carers the skills and tools to work successfully with trafficked children. These projects, which involve providing  safe accommodation and upskilling foster carers to deal with the specific challenges presented by looking after trafficked children, are helping social workers to fight back against the traffickers. This in turn has fed back into the pilot schemes, ensuring the demands are being met and lessons being learnt.

With one of the biggest risks being the fear instilled in the young people that something bad will happen to them or their family if they don’t return to the trafficker at the first available opportunity, it’s also proven to be a battle for hearts and minds, with social workers, professionals and foster Carers desperate to find the best way to win the trust of the trafficked child.

“We have seen many children placed inappropriately in supported lodging accommodation, where people can come and go a bit more freely than in foster care, and for many young people, they’re retrafficked  almost immediately, a pattern across the country is that Vietnamese children are at really high risk of going  missing within the first 24 hours of being placed.

“Organised crime gangs are highly organised, and how they groom children is so sophisticated, they instil so much fear that children feel like they have no other choice but to get back to the traffickers as quickly as possible. So that fear is very real. We need to understand that trafficked young people have been threatened and harmed,” says Rachel.

Instead, she says social workers are focused on breaking this vicious cycle. “The pull factor to remain has to be greater than the push factor to go back to the trafficker,” she says. “It’s a skilled and demanding task.

“We would always want a young person to be supervised. But you have to be careful as to not replicate the experience they have just left. It is therefore fundamental that everyone around that child is giving huge amounts back, in respect to that relationship building, and a significant amount of time is spent – and really consciously spent – on giving time and building the trust in that relationship.

“One good way to do this is to ensure the child isn’t put into a busy households with lots of competing demands.”

A societal solution

But, with modern slavery and human trafficking almost certainly taking place in every town and city in the country, it’s not just specialist foster carers and skilled social workers who have a role to play.

“You need a systemic approach,” says Rachel. The whole system has to work together if we are to tackle this – and the wider community can play a role in this too.

“It’s a problem that is constantly around us, and in the most normal of places. But It’s hard to see it; it’s almost unseen. We’re talking about places like nail bars – and who would know if exploitation was going on in the high street? It’s so normal. Or car washes? Or our agricultural industries?

“In terms of getting this message to the public, it’s really early days in terms of public perception. Modern life is fast and just keeps getting faster. We’re more plugged into our gadgets than we are our communities, so maybe we don’t see as much. And that’s a risk. It’s crucial to raise awareness, to provide safe, compassionate care to enable these children to be children, with opportunities to thrive and have hope.”

More Information
Unseen

Helpline for people who may have a concern, funded by Google and Polaris, a global anti-human trafficking organisation based in Washington, DC that operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline for the United States.
For more information visit: www.unseenuk.org

NSPCC

The NSPCC runs a child trafficking information helpline.
For more information visit: www.nspcc.org.uk/services-and-resources/services-for-children-and-families/child-trafficking-advice-centre-ctac

Barnado’s

Barnardo’s Independent Child Trafficking Advocates (Hampshire and IOW, Wales and Greater Manchester)

Government

www.gov.uk/government/publications/child-trafficking-advocates-early-adopter-sites

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