Child victims of trafficking will not be given desperately needed protection under new government plans to tackle the crime, despite hundreds of them being abducted from care every year.
The coalition's latest strategy on human trafficking, which is expected to be announced next week, has been described as a "missed opportunity" that will focus on border control rather than prevention and protecting victims.
More than 300 trafficked children have gone missing from British care homes in the past three years, yet David Cameron wrote in a letter to a leading charity last week: "I believe that the current arrangements for safeguarding trafficked children are sufficiently comprehensive and afford these vulnerable children the protection they deserve."
Despite signing up to EU measures that require countries to provide independent guardians for trafficked children, the Government will claim that social workers can do the job. However, experts say they lack crucial qualities for the job, such as being able to instruct lawyers or act as an independent voice for the child.
Christine Beddoe, the director of End Child Prostitution and Trafficking UK, said: "A guardian would have parental responsibilities that social workers just don't have. Even though the Government has signed up to the EU directive, which requires special protection for child victims, there has been no review of existing measures and no consultation with charities (or the victims) about what children need to make them feel safe and what will prevent them from going missing. It's clear the government strategy is more concerned about border controls than increasing protection for trafficking victims."
The Government opted into an EU directive on human trafficking earlier this year, following a campaign by The Independent on Sunday that was backed by more than 46,000 people. Experts are now beginning to fear this will have been little more than an empty gesture.
Steve Chalke, the UN special adviser on trafficking said: "What little the Government has communicated to the organisations working on the ground suggests the strategy falls well short of the mark and is a missed opportunity. At the moment Britain is not compliant with its international obligations to prevent human trafficking."
Leading organisations working with victims say their expertise has not been called upon. Klara Skrivankova, Anti-Slavery International's trafficking programme co-ordinator, said: "We have had no meaningful consultation with the Government over their forthcoming trafficking strategy and neither have any of the other key NGOs working on this issue. This is very different to our experience with the previous government, where the input of experts in the field was actively encouraged. The lack of civil society consultation is also in stark contrast to the approach of the European Commission and other EU countries."
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Human Trafficking will meet Damien Green, the immigration minister, tomorrow to discuss the latest strategy. The Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart, a member of the group, said: "The welfare of victims is not on the agenda. The Government is appallingly complacent about this modern form of slavery."
The coalition is likely to announce that it has earmarked money from the Department for International Development for trafficking and forced labour prevention programmes in India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
A Home Office spokeswoman said "The new strategy will be published shortly. It would therefore be inappropriate to comment before publication."