OPINION: UK must rethink anti-child trafficking approach

by Catherine Baker | ECPAT UK
Friday, 3 May 2019 11:45 GMT

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Until the system is changed to prioritise children's rights, abuses like the Morton Hall sexual assault will continue

Catherine Baker is senior research, policy and campaigns officer at ECPAT UK.

The Home Office has rightly been forced to pay damages for its litany of failures against ‘H’, a child victim of trafficking who was sexually assaulted and illegally detained at Morton Hall immigration removal centre. H was criminalised, imprisoned, detained in immigration detention, sexually assaulted and threatened with forced removal. All of this was done to him at the hands of the state, after being exploited and abused, calling conventional notions of abuser and protector into question.

The sheer multitude of failures against this young person at every stage, by almost everyone with a duty to protect him, is astonishing. From being wrongly charged for cannabis cultivation, not being identified as a child victim of trafficking on two occasions, gross administrative errors by submitting incorrect forms, and to Morton Hall immigration removal centre failing to treat his sexual assault as a serious incident until being threatened with a lawsuit, the list goes on.

Some might be tempted to see this case as a potential turning point in how young victims of trafficking are treated. Certainly for H, being granted compensation may positively impact his future. However, nothing can erase the impact of such abuse and mistreatment. Moreover, this case is unlikely to lead to meaningful change when we consider that the issues it exposed are part of systematic policies that are failing children and young people who have been trafficked.

For example, a less obvious part of the story was the initial failure by the local authority to properly safeguard H. When he was found as a 17-year-old child under the control of traffickers, he was arrested and charged with production of cannabis, and when produced before a magistrates' court the following day, the local authority took him into their care. However, instead of seeking safe accommodation such as a foster care, he was placed in a hotel, where he spent five nights before going missing, only to be found three years later.

This was a clear safeguarding failure that went against statutory duties: a victim of child abuse, at  high risk of going missing and being re-trafficked, was placed in unsafe and unsuitable accommodation. This was a missed opportunity to protect H as a child against further harm, who was then unlawfully detained and sexually assaulted in immigration detention.

The failure to safely accommodate H speaks to wider issues that ECPAT UK has long highlighted: children’s services severely lack the required training and specialist services to properly protect trafficked children from further harm. As our research has shown, child victims of trafficking are much more likely to go missing than other children in care, with high risks that they are then re-trafficked. These safeguarding failures are exacerbated by the political decision to drastically reduce funding to children’s services, which are now at ‘breaking point’.

Additionally, this case is unlikely to affect the wider policies that leave trafficked young people without immigration status in insecure and unprotected situations.

H’s case is emblematic of how a desire to tackle the ‘scourge of modern slavery’ meets the realities of policies designed to create a hostile immigration environment. In this context, a child victim of trafficking is often not seen first and foremost as a victim of abuse but as an immigration offender, liable to be detained and removed once they become an adult. Attempts to safeguard against further harms are thwarted by immigration considerations, as this overarching agenda filters down to those working with children at the frontline.

Young people who have been trafficked need stability and security to recover and rebuild their lives, but routes to secure immigration status are extremely limited. Many of these children struggle to regularise their status, meaning that when they turn 18, much of the support they have received falls abruptly away, leaving them in a precarious situation. There is currently no opportunity to secure long term leave to remain through the process of being identified as a child victim of trafficking.

A much bigger shift is required in policy making around child trafficking for there to be meaningful change for young people affected. This means situating child trafficking as a child abuse issue, requiring a child protection response, and placing young people’s rights and futures at the centre of responses. If we were to re-design an anti-child trafficking approach in this way, we would see increased funding to children’s services to provide specialist care, based on young people’s needs. We would also prioritise stable futures for young people who have been trafficked, providing them with the option of long term leave to remain in the UK if that is in their best interest.

Until then, it is likely that the youngest victims of trafficking, like H, will continue to face an inhumane system where abuse may come not just from the traffickers but from the state itself.