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Anti-Slavery Day: Protection and justice for trafficked children should be paramount - regardless of their immigration status

The authorities tend to say ‘historical victim of trafficking’, but for these victims, the suffering isn't in the past.

As the Young Women’s Worker at the Poppy Project, I work with 16 to 25 year old women and girls, many of whom were trafficked as children, some as young as nine years old.

The majority of these women come to us as adults after having encountered different statutory bodies including the police, social services and health professionals or by their legal representatives.

For over nine years the Poppy Project has been supporting victims of child trafficking who were only identified as so when they were adults. During this time, the UK mechanism for identifying victims of trafficking (the National Referral Mechanism) was put into motion.

Reasonably early in its implementation, the authorities began using the term ‘historical victim of trafficking’ and with this came the refusal of support for a large number of victims who were deemed to be ‘historical’, that is, victims who had escaped years before coming into contact with the authorities. It is as if the crimes committed against them in the past had expired and did not merit recognition.

Women who are deemed ‘historical victims’ are generally not granted the designated reflection period which should give them access to safe accommodation and specialist support, but are left in vulnerable positions of potential destitution, re-trafficking and further exploitation.

In our experience, many of these women identified as ‘historical victims’ are victims of child trafficking that are not being identified while they are children, but are coming to the attention of the authorities years later. These are girls and young women that would have endured situations of sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and other forms of exploitation whilst they were children.

These are often children that went missing from care, that were brought into the country via private fostering arrangements, who were brought over under false pretences of education and employment or fled from forced marriage or female genital mutilation among other circumstances.These are children who are controlled by traffickers through abuse of vulnerability, false promises, threats to their families, violence and the use of cultural beliefs such as juju or witchcraft. 

As victims of child trafficking, and therefore child abuse, they should have been provided with specialist support since their initial contact with professionals regardless of now being adults or of the time passed since their escape.

Some of these young women were in contact with different statutory agencies during their situations of abuse but are not being identified as victims of trafficking. Child trafficking is in effect child abuse, and the immigration status of the child should under no circumstances affect a child’s need for protection now or in the future as vulnerable adults.

The NRM is utilised as the source of information to gather intelligence and monitor trends used to influence trafficking prevention and prosecution work. It does not however reflect the reality of child trafficking in the UK.

Its failure to monitor whether a victim comes to the UK as a child or an adult significantly reduces the number of identified victims of child trafficking. The system does not identify child victims if they are referred into the mechanism once they are adults and therefore misses out on significant information that is not captured in any other way by the government.

Furthermore, the identification process becomes flawed in itself as the authorities responsible for the identification apply the adult definition of trafficking to young women who were trafficked as children. This has in our experience diminished the number of women and girls positively identified as victims and limits their entitlement to support and potential legal remedies.

For many young women who survive a situation of trafficking, sometimes for as long as ten years, their survival instinct can often serve as a barrier to them accessing protection. Resilient girls and women who have survived these situations are often penalised and not believed and are branded as ‘resourceful’.

"Women and girls in the UK have the right to be protected from gender violence whether they were born here or abroad"

According to the authorities these women are capable of returning to countries where there is no state support, where they have no family or support networks and where they are at further danger of being re-trafficked.

As highlighted in the Women’s Asylum Charter campaign coordinated by the charity Asylum Aid, ‘Every Single Woman’, and in their latest ‘Missed Out’ campaign, women and girls in the UK have the right to be protected from gender violence whether they were born here or abroad.

We would urge the Government to learn from the progress made in the work done to support victims of child abuse and domestic violence and apply this to the work done with victims of child trafficking. Protection and justice for those who were abused as children should be paramount regardless of their immigration status.

Should the immigration authorities be determining whether an adult who was abused and exploited as a child is in need of support? Or should we be protecting and supporting those young people to recover and build up their lives, regardless of where they came from?

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?