* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Despite significant progress made towards understanding and tackling modern slavery in Britain, children are being left behind
The limitations of the government’s much-vaulted modern slavery agenda have been exposed in recent months. From a damming National Audit Office report, which highlighted a lack of oversight, a Justice Inspectorate report revealing inconsistent and ineffective identification of victims, and the recent resignation of the first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner citing concerns over independence, the cracks in this policy area are beginning to show.
But one aspect of this policy that has garnered less attention is around its most vulnerable victims - children. A report published today by ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking) indicates that, despite significant progress made towards understanding and tackling modern slavery in the UK, children are being left behind.
Whilst children represent nearly half of all victims identified (rising by a staggering 66% last year, to 2,218 victims), the report reveals that a lack of child-specific policies and resourcing have left these children without specialist support and vulnerable to further harm.
Child trafficking is a form of child abuse and a grave violation children’s rights. It is therefore a specific phenomenon, which requires a different response from adults, one that is centred on child rights and child protection. Yet this is precisely where the response has been lacking. Rather than taking a victim-centred and child focused approach, the Government’s modern slavery response has been targeted criminal justice and immigration.
This is particularly evident in the support provision for victims, where one would expect child victims to be the highest recipients. Yet unlike for adults, who receive specialist accommodation and recovery support from a Government contract run by the Salvation Army, there is little or no centrally funded specialist support provision for child victims. Responsibility instead falls within local children’s services, where there is no additional funding, specialist accommodation provision and no mandatory training for social workers on child trafficking. ECPAT UK regularly trains frontline workers on these issues, yet on a regular basis, not a single social worker in a training room will realise that it is their duty to report trafficking risks of children in their care. How can children get the support they need to recover from such experiences if those responsible for their care do not recognise the risks or understand their needs?
Because child protection responsibility is devolved to local authorities, where awareness of these issues is low and recording practices are inconsistent, these children become pretty much invisible from national data. This leaves us with little way of knowing whether they are safe and protected from further harm.
Sadly, much of what we do know of what happens to them is far from positive. An ECPAT UK report in 2016 highlighted that over a one-year period until September 2015, nearly a third of all trafficked and unaccompanied asylum seeking children went missing from care at least once, and over 200 of these children were never found. Other children get returned to their country of origin once they turn 18, with little scrutiny, no proper risk assessment and with a high likelihood that they will be further exploited or re-trafficked.
Small steps are being taken but they are limited and slow to materialise. The one key provision for children under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act was to establish an independent specialist advocacy scheme for trafficked children. Yet it is still only currently operational in a few areas of England and Wales, with no clarity on when full national roll-out is expected, and only applies to those identified as trafficked, not all separated children. In Scotland, a non-statutory service remains but the promise to make it statutory has not yet come true and, in Northern Ireland, a statutory scheme is anticipated shortly but not yet operational.
Long-awaited reforms to the National Referral Mechanism, the system for identification and support of modern slavery victims, were announced in October. But whilst for adults this includes additional support provision, the reforms do not offer any material support provision for child victims.
At the same time, immigration objectives continue to hinder meaningful progress for children. There is no policy to provide child victims of trafficking with long-term stability in this country through their immigration status, and a hostile immigration environment continues to create barriers to them accessing vital services such as health and education. Despite dire conditions for separated children across Europe, there are very few safe, legal routes for children to enter the UK, which leaves them unprotected and exposed to exploitation. Coupled with this is a looming threat posed by Brexit that the UK will no longer be able to cooperate fully with European child protection mechanisms.
So whilst the UK Government’s modern slavery agenda has undoubtedly been a major step forward towards understanding and responding to this crime, has it now begun to reach its limits? Exposing the limitations of the Government’s response shows that it is time for a new approach for children. This approach should be focused on children’s rights, centred on their best interests and should be driven by the views of young people themselves. A re-prioritisation of this kind would mean funding to children’s services for specialist provision of support, providing children with an opportunity to regularise their immigration status and opening up safe, legal routes for children to enter the UK.
Child trafficking is not an immigration issue, nor can it be dealt with effectively by prosecutions alone. It is a structural issue, exacerbated and often created by poor resourcing and policy choices that make children vulnerable. As such it calls for an urgent response rooted in child protection first and foremost.