The Home Office has broken the law by failing to protect a child trafficking victim who subsequently went missing, a court has ruled.
In a landmark case, a Court of Appeal judge said the government had breached human rights law after a child believed to have been trafficked to the UK from Vietnam was released from immigration detention, with no measures put in place to protect him.
It comes amid growing concern over the lack of protection for victims of modern slavery, after The Independent revealed people who had been rescued from exploitation were facing deportation from the UK despite fearing for their lives in their home countries.
Last October, authorities pleaded with the government to overhaul slavery policies because child victims of trafficking were being exploited again within weeks of being rescued. A recent report by the NSPCC revealed more than 120 child refugees believed to have been trafficked to the UK had gone missing in the year to November 2017.
The court heard that the Vietnamese minor, who currently remains unaccounted for, was discovered by British police in 2015 in the back of a van with 15 other boys and young men, and subsequently placed in immigration detention. No age assessment was completed and he was not recognised as a potential victim of trafficking.
Six weeks later, the solicitor representing the child wrote to the Home Office to warn that he would be at serious risk of falling back into the hands of his traffickers unless he were placed in secure accommodation under local authority care.
Yet the child was released with no protection in November 2015 and has since been missing. The court judged this to be a breach of the duty to protect potential victims of trafficking under Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the first time a domestic court in England and Wales has made such a ruling.
The judge found that the Home Office’s conduct towards the Vietnamese minor represented “a sorry story”, and that its response to the evidence that the appellant was a child was “reprehensible”.
Silvia Nicolaou Garcia, the solicitor from Simpson Millar LLP who acted for the child, said she welcomed the judgment: ”Protective measures should be in place for the appellant and others like him, so they do not fall prey to the hands of their traffickers.
“We hope this judgment will lead to greater protection for victims of trafficking.”
Colin Yeo, a barrister specialising in UK immigration law, told The Independent: “The Home Office actively harmed this child by failing to assess his age and failing to recognise that he was trafficked.
“Civil servants then compounded the situation by simply releasing him into the hands of his traffickers. This is grossly negligent and if the victim ever resurfaces I hope he is able to hold those responsible at the Home Office to account.”
Helen Johnson, head of children’s services at the Refugee Council, said the current system of recognising child trafficking victims was “bureaucratic and cumbersome” and stressed that “children’s safety, not red tape, should come first”.
She added: “Provisions to ensure those who are suspected of being child victims of trafficking are properly protected whilst further information about them is gathered are often not adhered to.
“By the time the authorities decide to act, the child has often been placed in unsafe and inappropriate situations such as adult detention centres or prisons, or gone missing from care, and been found and retrafficked by their exploiters.”
It comes after ministers were accused of “riding roughshod” over the needs of trafficking victims, as it emerged last week that a Vietnamese man who was brought to Britain and forced to work on a cannabis farm by a drugs gang was to be forcibly removed from the country.
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