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OPINION: We need to support child victims of trafficking amid coronavirus

by Catherine Baker | ECPAT UK
Tuesday, 31 March 2020 11:30 GMT

People walk under cherry blossom trees in Battersea Park, as the number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases grow around the world, in London, Britain March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The coronavirus crisis highlights the harmful effect of lockdown on child victims of trafficking in Britain

Catherine Baker is senior campaigns officer at ECPAT UK.

Right now, as you grow tired of online meetings and ponder what to watch next on Netflix, consider how different being in lockdown is for a young person who has been through the trauma of being trafficked.

Many of the young people Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK) supports are telling us that the government-imposed lockdown as a result of Covid-19 triggers memories of their exploitation; times when they were unable to leave the house, had their freedom and agency taken away from them by their traffickers. The reasons behind this new loss of freedom may be very different, but feeling trapped is still re-traumatising. Now more than ever, we’re seeing that young people need to feel properly supported.

But as we mark five years since it was promised to them, the majority of child victims are still left waiting for specialist support. On 26th March 2015, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 came into force in the UK. The Act established the Independent Child Trafficking Guardians service, a measure long fought for by ECPAT UK and others. This law provides an independent, trusted adult with specialist knowledge to support each child victim through the many complex services they encounter in the UK and help them access their rights. Yet half a decade later, the service is still only available in a third of local authorities in England and Wales, leaving the majority of child victims without access.

There are two elements of the support that guardianship provides that are so essential, particularly in the current context. Firstly, guardians provide the opportunity for young people to build a meaningful relationship of trust. After all these young people have been through, it can be difficult for them to trust that adults have their best interests in mind. A guardian can, over time, help them feel able to build these relationships of trust again. As we’re seeing with the young people we support, having someone calling to check up on them whilst they’re stuck at home during this crisis is more important than ever.

Secondly, guardians provide specialist knowledge of the complex issues facing these young people. Guardians understand how immigration, asylum, criminal justice and age assessment processes work, and with social workers often lacking capacity and specialist training, guardians bring vital expertise. As Home Office announcements on coronavirus-driven changes to asylum and immigration procedures come thick and fast, who is going to keep young people up to date and ensure their lawyers are taking the necessary steps?

Specialist advocacy and trusted relationships can have a huge impact on children’s futures. Five years on from the Modern Slavery Act, we still know little about what happens to child victims long-term. What we do know is that while vastly more children have been identified as victims, these children go missing from care at alarmingly high rates, more are being refused long term leave to remain in the UK, and far too many are still being criminalised for crimes they were forced to commit. Had the guardianship support they were entitled to been in place, how many children could have been prevented from going missing in these five years? How many could’ve been prevented from facing criminal charges? Or prevented from ending up in immigration detention and being returned to a country where they face harm as an adult? How many would be facing this pandemic feeling less alone, with someone on the end of the phone supporting them through it?

Last week, 42 MPs from across the political spectrum wrote to the Home Secretary to demand rollout of the service. They expressed deep concern that the government ‘not delay its promises to the most vulnerable victims any longer’. The MPs are the latest to join this call, along with NGOs and academics, who, like ECPAT UK, believe that guardianship should go even further and be extended to unaccompanied children too, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is because it can help unaccompanied young people - who are often victims not yet detected - disclose when they’ve been exploited.

At times of crisis, cracks in the system begin to emerge and we may see more children falling through the net. Long-term investment can prevent more costly and damaging impacts as children are re-trafficked multiple times for lack of effective support.

So as we all adjust to this crisis, we can’t let the government off the hook for its failed promises to the most vulnerable, and least visible, in our society. Child victims of trafficking deserve to be given what they are entitled to; it may be what gets them through this crisis, as well as what shields them from crises to come.