Anti-Slavery Day: One victim of child sex trafficking is one too many

Every year hundreds of children are trafficked for sexual exploitation and labour in the UK. But the criminals are rarely found or punished. Why?


It’s your twelfth birthday, and you’ve recently lost your mother.

You’ve never met your father, and as a result you are cared for by relatives. They struggle to feed and clothe you, so out of economic necessity you must leave school to sell whatever you can on the streets.

A man befriends you and your relatives, offering a better life in another country. There is hope when things seemed desperate. A place where you can go to school, get a good education, earn money and be successful. The offer seems too good to be true. But you’re yet to discover that it is.

When you arrive in the country, you’re taken to a strange place. It doesn’t look how you imagined. The language sounds very different.

When the night is over and the men have left, you’re left alone. The bleeding has stopped, but the tears still come in sporadic bursts. This experience is repeated daily and you’ve lost count for how long.

That country is the United Kingdom. And this is the reality for hundreds of children every year.

When some children go missing from the UK, there is a prompt investigation, search, campaign, and a shared sense of shared hope that they are safely found.

The children who are trafficked into the UK are often unable to speak the language to ask for help, and there is no one in the country to report them missing.

In 2011, there were just eight convictions for human trafficking.

In 2011, there were just eight convictions for human trafficking. And this includes adult cases. The data isn’t separated between adult and child, but every year hundreds of children and young teenagers who have been trafficked are discovered by charities and local authorities – and these are just those who have managed to escape the clutches of their captors.

Today the Home Office are to release a report revealing that numbers of human trafficking are rising. With anti-slavery day today, what better time than now for the Home Office to publicly address the issue.

Slavery sounds like it should be confined to history books, but the reality is very different for many children. Sexual exploitation is the most prevalent type of child trafficking in the UK, but they are also forced into slave labour and organised crime.

Christine Beddoe, from the charity End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), feels that there is a culture of disbelief in the UK when it comes to acknowledging cases of trafficking:

"The government tend to brush cases of child trafficking under the carpet."

"The government tend to brush cases of child trafficking under the carpet,” says Beddoe.

“The children are considered immigrants, and with deportation being a greater concern than justice, their perpetrators aren’t punished, and are left to commit the same crimes to other children.”

The June report from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which is part of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, acknowledged the scale of the problem:

The UK continues to be a significant transit and destination country for child trafficking, with reporting confirming the existence of child trafficking both into and within the UK.

And yet there were only eight convictions in 2011.

Described as a high-profit, low-risk crime, the EU encourages use of an independent watchdog to ensure action – but the Home Office continues to hold back. As a result, the data on child trafficking is insufficient and there are no mandatory guidelines to follow when a child is found.

As these children arrive with no family or support, ECPAT suggest that each child should have a system of legal guardianship to represent their case and be responsible for their welfare:

“Nobody chases it up when they go missing. The government seem completely resistant to it [the introduction of legal guardians], with one major reason seeming that as many of these young people are from abroad, they are technically illegal immigrants.”

How do they prove they are who they say they are?

Apart from the primary concern of deportation, there are many obstacles to identifying trafficked children. As well as a lack of belief of their extraordinary story, they have been groomed to keep silent, and even threatened. Even for those children who are fortunate enough to break away and tell their story, they face a further problem: how do they prove they are who they say they are? Without a passport or identification they are then put through the unpleasant process that illegal immigrants face, without anyone to believe their story.

For one girl, Aluna* (*not her real name), this was the case. Over the years her body reached puberty, and she was no longer considered useful to her abusers and their customers. After being abandoned, she managed to find a police station. When she tried to explain in broken English where she was from and what she had been through, she was thrown in a cell.

Beddoe says: “As seen with the allegations surrounding Jimmy Savile, we are still living in a culture where the adult’s word is taken over the child’s - so children don’t come forward. And if they do, they aren’t believed.”

“Our concern is to keep children safe but this is often in conflict with the Border Agency who treat them as if they are asylum seekers.”

“The fact is,” she adds, “the legislation is there to convict criminals for child trafficking, but both the police and other professionals don’t take it seriously.”

There is a significantly higher number of victims than investigations and convictions.

As a result of the lack of resources, the number of victims identified via the National Referral Mechanism, who record the data on victims, shows there is a significantly higher number of victims than criminal investigations and convictions.

Beddoe describes how the legislation is difficult to pursue, and as the Crown Prosecution Service will only take cases which will prosecute, and the police struggle to meet the threshold of evidence required, the cases aren’t put forward.

“The police have their hands tied if the legislation is not fit for purpose. There’s one answer to this problem: change the legislation.”

“The Crown Prosecution Service are favourable to starting from scratch and re-writing the law to bring it up to date. But there’s not enough pressure internally to do this. It takes political will.”

The Independent on Sunday successfully campaigned for the UK to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking in March last year, and the Coalition government promised vast improvements on tackling the trade and exploitation of humans, to strengthen our laws and to protect victims, making it easier to prosecute those who enslave them, but over a year and a half later, and we’re yet to see the results.

There is a general acceptance within the EU that the UK isn’t doing as much as we should be, and that our European neighbours are better at enforcing laws to stop trafficking, and prosecuting those involved. The recent report from the Council of Europe's Greta (Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings) said we need better trained supervisors or foster carers for trafficked children. They suggested a "significant" number of trafficked children in care go missing - and some even end up rejoining those who exploited them in the first place.

The reality is, we accommodate traffickers and the abuse of their silent victims.

We are used to hearing the word “trafficking”, but it can so easily be dismissed as a foreign concept. The reality is, in the UK, we accommodate traffickers and the abuse of their silent victims. The problem is vast and widespread, with cases in Belfast, Derby, Portsmouth, Cardiff, London, Totness, Oxford, Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol.

Child sex trafficking is happening, but arrests aren’t, and neither are prosecutions. And so on Anti-Slavery Day, there’s a question to propose to the Home Office:

We know there are victims, but where are the perpetrators?



Click here to read the story of Sara, who was trafficked to the UK by a Church Pastor and forced into prostitution.

Click here for an article by Carolina Albuerne from The Poppy Project, which provides support, advocacy and accommodation to trafficked women.

Click here for Barnardo's Chief Executive Anne Marie Carrie commenting on internal trafficking in the UK.


LEGAL CASE: 7 July 2011

A man was convicted of trafficking two Nigerian girls who had been controlled by Juju magic rituals - this was the first case of its kind in Europe.

Anthony Harrison, 32, imprisoned both girls - aged 14 and 16 - at his east London home before attempting to traffic them to Spain and Greece as prostitutes.

It took police two years to persuade them to speak openly about their ordeal, due to their fear after the ritual.

It was suggested he took over from Kennedy Johnson imprisoned in 2009 for trafficking – and was even possibly related to him.

Johnson trafficked dozens of Nigerian teenagers, some as young as thirteen, into and out of the UK for sexual exploitation. 

The case received minimal media coverage at the time, and the whereabouts of Johnson's child victims are still mostly unknown. Johnson was sentenced to just six years, and lessons from this case have never been circulated to Local Authorities. 


The Netherlands are renowned as among the best in Europe for their practices in tackling trafficking. They have a dedicated National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking (as do many other countries in Europe, including Finland and Czech Republic) which the UK still lacks. Corinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen, said:

“Children need our protection. This is well recognised in the new EU-Directive, as it should be. I have found that in the Netherlands the conviction rate where minors are concerned [in sex trafficking] is higher than average. But still, every child victim is one too many.”


- The 489 child potential victims who were found to have been trafficked into the UK in 2011 were from 43 countries. Romania 20%, Vietnam 13%, Nigeria 11%, internal trafficking within the UK 9%.

- Exploitation type was unknown in 22% of child cases. Sexual explitation 30%, criminal exploitation 26%, labour exploitation 13% and domestic servitude 7%.

- The SOCA assessment says: “It is likely that the true number of victims in trafficking is higher than that identified in this assessment.”

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