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Anti-Slavery Day: Child sexual exploitation should be at the top of the crime agenda

Child trafficking affects every section of society, but these children are left to fend for themselves.

The prevalence of child trafficking in the UK is largely unknown – government figures suggest that around 300 children are victims of trafficking in the UK each year.

But it is widely acknowledged that this figure is an under-estimate and does not include the hundreds of children who are trafficked for sexual exploitation within the UK itself.

Barnardo’s is the biggest provider of services to help children who are being sexually exploited in the country. The number of children we worked with last year grew by 8.4% to 1,190. Of those 1 in 6 service users had been moved from town to town and city to city, rising to 1 in 2 in some areas. And nearly half (44%) of the children using our services have gone missing from home or care.

What’s more, our experience shows this problem affects every section of society, but due to the challenges around identification and data collection the true extent is not known and children are being left in the wilderness.

Anecdotal evidence tells us that major sporting events are a particular pull for these abhorrent child abusers, with indications that trafficking increased during previous Olympics Games and major sporting events. The Greek government found that human trafficking doubled in 2004, and the Athens Olympics are thought to have been the main cause. Again in 2010 with the Delhi Commonwealth Games, the Indian government estimated there was a 50 per cent increase in young girls trafficked for sex. During this year’s Olympic Games, the Daily Mail reported that a man was caught by immigration trying to traffick a 15-year-old boy into Britain for sexual exploitation.

"We know that this is happening every day and still so many victims go unnoticed."

But we know that this is happening every day and still so many victims go unnoticed.  It is vital that agencies like Barnardo’s raise awareness of this problem. If the public, including those who work in the leisure, tourism and hospitality sectors – taxi drivers, hoteliers, club and bar staff for example – are vigilant and avoid being unintentional facilitators of this horrific abuse, we can help keep more children safe.

Signs include realising that a young person is in a hotel room that many adults are visiting, noticing that a young person is being bought alcoholic drinks by adults or indications of sexual activity with an adult significantly older than the young person.  Barnardo’s ‘Spot the Signs’ leaflets can show what to look out for and how to get help.

Building a picture of what is happening is crucial too.  We need to ensure that all police forces and local safeguarding children boards are actively looking for this abuse and making sure they collect data effectively so we can assess the threat to young people and trigger alarm bells if key indicators are noticed. Understanding what happens will help us all to protect children in the future.

"Policing of child trafficking is improving but it is still very patchy."

Policing of child trafficking is improving but it is still very patchy.  Right now candidates are canvassing for election to be Police and Crime Commissioners, and Barnardo’s is calling on them to put child sexual exploitation at the top of their agenda with our Cut them free campaign.

We also want to see risks posed to children in care reduced dramatically and so we are piloting a unique scheme with the Department for Education to offer specialist safe accommodation for victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. We are training up foster carers for these vulnerable young people and would encourage anyone who thinks they could take on this unique role to get in touch – we provide the training and ongoing support for the carers, as well as supporting the young people themselves.

Urgent action is needed to protect the hundreds of young girls and boys who are being trafficked, abused, raped and exploited for sex.

We can all do more to protect the children and young people in our lives and in our communities from this increasingly organised and vile abuse.

Numbers of human trafficking are on the rise. Click here for a full report on child sex trafficking. Why were there only eight convictions in 2011?