* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Recent Freedom of Information request found that 308 children arrested for offences relating to cannabis cultivation in UK since 2011
Last week saw the UK Modern Slavery Bill pass through Report Stage in the House of Lords (upper chamber of parliament), one of the most important final stages of the Bill and a critical moment for vulnerable trafficked children
In what constitutes a landmark step, we were delighted to see child trafficking advocates given legal powers; powers that will allow them to ensure that trafficked children are supported and kept safe. Crucially, advocates will now be able to step in at the times when they are needed most, instructing legal representatives on behalf of a child and ensuring the child’s best interests are represented at all times. This is an incredibly positive step for trafficked children in the UK and for the over 65,000 Unicef UK campaigners who have supported our call for better legal protections.
For over a year Unicef UK and a number of other organisations have been working on the Modern Slavery Bill to ensure that trafficked children get the protection and support they so desperately need. One of Unicef UK’s focuses has been campaigning to ensure that trafficked children are not prosecuted for crimes they commit as a direct result of being trafficked. Sadly evidence suggests that trafficked children are still being wrongfully prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned.
As highlighted in a recent Thomson Reuters Foundation article, a growing issue is that of children trafficked into the UK to work on cannabis farms. A recent Freedom of Information request found that 308 children had been arrested for offences relating to the cultivation of cannabis in Britain since 2011, 245 of whom were from Vietnam. There was a case of a 16-year-old boy who was trafficked from Vietnam, locked in a house in Nottinghamshire and forced to grow cannabis. When police found him, barefoot and frightened, he was prosecuted for the crime he’d committed as a result of being trafficked. His traffickers went unpunished.
Last year, the government introduced a statutory defence in the Bill to help protect victims like this from being prosecuted for crimes they commit as a direct result of their trafficking. Whilst Unicef UK strongly welcomed this, we were still concerned that the defence wasn’t appropriate for children, who still had to pass a number of tests to be eligible for the defence and remained at risk of being unfairly convicted and imprisoned.
The issue received strong public and cross-party support in parliament - from members of parliament (MPs), Peers and a number of the committees involved with the Bill. The government have listened to all these voices of support and deserve real credit for the progress made on this issue. Before Christmas the government announced that that they would remove one of the tests that trafficked children needed to pass in order to access the statutory defence. This was a significant decision and step in the right direction. It is crucial that there is recognition of the fact that that trafficked children are extremely vulnerable and that the Bill must reflect that.
Ahead of Report Stage in the Lords, the government announced that they would make an amendment to simplify the defence and make it easier for trafficked children to defend themselves in court if they are prosecuted for crimes they committed as a result of being trafficked. It is our hope that the statutory defence and these amendments will mean that trafficked children in the UK are far less likely to face the injustice of being wrongfully prosecuted and convicted.
The Modern Slavery Bill isn’t over yet and Unicef UK’s work to protect trafficked children will not stop when the Bill passes. There is still more that we must do to protect children from the danger of trafficking. Crucially, there is much the Home Office (interior ministry), law enforcement and the wider justice system can do to ensure that no trafficked child is wrongfully prosecuted and imprisoned.
But right now, this is a moment to feel proud. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of parliamentarians from all parties, the Home Secretary (interior minister) and Home Office Ministers, and strong support from the British public, the Modern Slavery Bill will make a huge difference to the lives of vulnerable trafficked children.
Zara Taylor-Jackson works on Government Relations for Unicef UK