* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Trafficked children face a hostile immigration system in Britain with very few being granted leave to remain
Patricia Durr is the Chief Executive of ECPAT UK
A decade ago, to mark its commitment to ending exploitation, the government introduced the UK’s Anti-Slavery Day and ECPAT UK published our first ‘snapshot’ report to highlight the specific issues affecting child victims. 10 years on, the UK is still failing child victims and many of the problems facing young people remain unchanged.
Trafficked children continue to face major issues such as insufficient protection in social care, being criminalised, going missing and facing barriers to transitioning to adulthood in safety. While there is now a clear pathway for identifying victims of trafficking and modern slavery through the National Referral Mechanism, identification still does not lead to any specialist care or specific recovery services. For the young people we work with who have been trafficked to or within the UK, being identified as a victim is often the beginning of a journey through hostile systems that leave them feeling anything but safe and cared for.
Many of the children we work with were made to leave their homes and engage in criminal activity such as drug supply or were sexually exploited; being moved from place to place with no knowledge of who moved them or how they got there. Memories of abuse can make it difficult to sleep, communicate and concentrate. With immigration insecurity on top, it can become too much and young people end up going missing, potentially (re)trafficked and with no prospect of healing and recovery.
Child victims of trafficking suffering such extreme trauma are afforded no specific grant of leave to remain in safety in the UK and are instead forced into a very hostile system trying to regularise their status with years of uncertainty affecting every aspect of their lives and often leaving them stranded when they turn 18.
For confirmed child victims of trafficking, the Home Office should automatically consider a grant of discretionary leave in line with children’s rights under domestic and international law, and decisions should be taken with their best interests as a primary consideration in view of providing a long-term solution for them.
Despite survivors’ well-established need for stability to recover and remain safe, it has previously been impossible to fully understand what happens to child victims of trafficking in the immigration system because of the lack of public data. The data we obtained for our report shows shockingly poor outcomes for child victims. Equally shocking is that we only have this data because we pursued Freedom of Information requests over a significant period of time.
So what do the figures tell us? We know that in the four-year period of 2016 to 2019 there were 6,780 confirmed victims of human trafficking of all nationalities and that of those, 4,695 are subject to some form of immigration control. We don’t know how many of them are child victims but on the basis of the increasing numbers referred as potential victims each year, we would expect around half to be children.
The FOI data shows that in that four-year period only 28 grants of discretionary leave were issued to child victims. It also shows that the vast majority (82%) of both adult and child victims are only granted discretionary leave for periods of less than 12 months. For children, such a short grant of leave is rarely in their best interests as it does not provide the stability they need to stay safe and recover from the trauma and abuse they have experienced.
Furthermore, the data showed that of the total number of victims of trafficking granted asylum and humanitarian protection, children were also significantly underrepresented; comprising just 20.7% of those granted asylum and 29% of those granted humanitarian protection. The data does not provide information on the number of young victims of trafficking granted ‘UASC’ leave as unaccompanied children seeking asylum, which lasts two years or until a young person turns 17-and-a-half; whichever period is shorter. We know that many are granted this form of leave as a ‘stop gap’ measure which leaves them in constant anxiety about their future and is highly unsuitable for those who have suffered substantial trauma.
As the UK struggles against a global pandemic, our focus should include child victims of trafficking, for whom the crisis and responses to it are worsening existing vulnerabilities and leaving many at risk. Long term investment in children’s services is needed and the government must accelerate action to meet its existing obligations to children.
We urgently need reform to establish a process for child victims that sees them as children first, ensures that they are protected and cared for and that everyone is working together in their best interests to find a lasting solution for them, including decisions on their immigration status. This is what our stable futures campaign calls for; so they can focus on the important things like learning, playing and planning for their futures.