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Child smuggling and trafficking: what are the signs and what is being done to stop it?

Child smuggling and trafficking: what are the signs and what is being done to stop it?

According to the International Labour Organisation, 40.3 million people globally are being coerced into an exploitative situation or forced to work against their will at any given time.

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According to the International Labour Organisation, 40.3 million people globally are being coerced into an exploitative situation or forced to work against their will at any given time. Commonly, these victims are also smuggled across borders. Luna Williams explores what we can do to recognise the signs and tackle the issue.

stop child trafficking

In 2018, 5,029 potential trafficking victims were referred to the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the UK. Of these, 2,183 were children and youths.

Because of the nature of human trafficking (also known as Modern Slavery), estimates of the number of those subject to it are not always accurate. The head of the NCA calculates the actual number of modern slaves in the UK to be “in the tens of thousands”, suggesting those recorded are just the tip of the iceberg.

The difference between smuggling and trafficking

Human trafficking and smuggling are often confused – largely because the two often go hand-in-hand.

In 2018, 5,029 potential trafficking victims were referred to the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the UK

Smuggling specifically involves the illegal movement of people across borders, usually for a fee, while trafficking is exploitation-based.  The United Nations’ Palermo Protocol defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt” of an adult or child for the purpose of exploitation.

No coercion or force needs to take place when a child is involved for an act to be classed as trafficking: if any child is bought into an exploitive environment, they are being trafficked. According to the definition of child trafficking, a minor does not have the capacity to lawfully consent, so is therefore classed as a victim of trafficking (VoT), even if it performed an exploitative act ‘willingly.’

Human trafficking and smuggling are often confused – largely because the two often go hand-in-hand.

The most common forms of trafficking are forced labour, sexual exploitation, and forced marriage. 68% of the children trafficked in the UK are non-British; this is because they are most often smuggled across the border by trafficking gangs intending to make a financial profit from them. Some are kidnapped, while others are lured away from their home countries with the promise of a better life/help for their families. A worrying trend which has been noted by researchers is unaccompanied children and youths in refugee camps being picked up by gangs and forced into labour or prostitution in the UK.  In other cases, children (predominantly pre-teen – teen girls) are forced into marriage and moved to the UK with a Spouse Visa UK.

Signs that a child is being trafficked

Although it is not always easy to identify victims of trafficking, the NSPCC outlines some signs to look out for, if you suspect a child may be being exploited:

  • the child spends an unusual amount of time doing household chores
  • the child does not often leave their house and does not have the freedom to play/socialise
  • the child is an orphan/has been separated from their family (often in a foster-home)
  • the child lives in poor living conditions which do not provide for their basic needs
  • the child doesn’t know which country it is in/where it lives
  • the child is reluctant to talk about their home-life/living conditions
  • the child is not registered with a school or GP
  • the child has no personal documents/has fake documents
  • the child is seen in inappropriate locations (like factories or brothels)
  • the child has unaccounted goods or money
  • the child is injured (has burns, bruises, cuts) which are abnormal/unaccounted for
  • the child tells rehearsed story which seems to be copied from other children
  • the child is especially stressed, sleep-deprived or mal-nourished

If you suspect a child, a young person (or adult) is being trafficked, you can call the police on 999, or 101 if it isn’t an immediately life-threatening scenario.

You can also call 0800 555 111 if you’d prefer to stay anonymous.

If you are unsure of what to do, you can call the NSPCC’s helpline on 0808 8005 000. They will be able to talk you through the signs to look for and advise you on your next steps.

stop child trafficking

The current system

In 2014, the NCA introduced a National Referral Mechanism (NRM) which was designed to allow authorities to refer a potentially trafficked person/persons to them.

As part of this new scheme, any potential trafficking victims can be referred to the NRM by local police forces, local authorities (such as councils) or recognised expert charities (such as Unseen and Salvation Army). In accordance with the new law, the referred child will be given a 45-day ‘recovery and reflection’ period, during which time they will be given accommodation and living costs.

If you suspect a child, a young person (or adult) is being trafficked, you can call the police on 999, or 101 if it isn’t an immediately life-threatening scenario

However, the NRM has had its issues. For one, it is unable to deal with the number of referrals it receives. In 2017, for instance, there were 5,145 referrals, but only 665 lead to positive decisions in which the VoT was allowed to remain in the UK; 1,049 lead to negative decisions; and 3,273 were unresolved.

Another key issue which has been flagged up is prosecution. In various child trafficking cases, the VoT is  treated as a defendant rather than a victim. This is particularly common in cases in which the VoT was forced to transport drugs or engage in illegal activity while being trafficked.

In future amendments to Britain’s trafficking policies, the Home Office needs to consider reforming the current system so that these instances can be avoided. A child VoT has been abused and exploited in its lifetime. Forcing the child to wait in limbo for a decision to be reached on the legitimacy of its case, or treating it like a criminal, is not constructive or compassionate. Kindness is something trafficked children desperately seek; as part of their support, we should be ensuring they receive it.

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