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The United Kingdom, Trafficking and the Children at Risk

June 25, 2019
Natasha Schmidt
8 min read
Traffickers exploit children in a number of ways, including making them work in sweatshops
Traffickers exploit children in a number of ways, including making them work in sweatshops
Campaigning organization Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) works specifically with victims of child trafficking in the United Kingdom
Campaigning organization Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) works specifically with victims of child trafficking in the United Kingdom
ECPAT grew out of a campaign to combat sexual exploitation in Thailand
ECPAT grew out of a campaign to combat sexual exploitation in Thailand
In 2018, ECPAT launched a campaign to protect the identities of children held in refugee camps in Calais, France, particularly children who were unaccompanied
In 2018, ECPAT launched a campaign to protect the identities of children held in refugee camps in Calais, France, particularly children who were unaccompanied

Human trafficking is on the rise around the globe, and children are particularly vulnerable, with the United Nations identifying that nearly a third of people trafficked are children. According to joint research conducted and published by the International Labour Organisation, Walk Free Foundation and the International Organisation for Migration in 2017, “One in four victims of modern slavery were children — a total of 10.1 million child victims.” More than a million children are trafficked each year around the world, according to UNICEF.

Although annual figures on the number of children trafficked fluctuate, since 2010 there has been a steady increase in these cases. And although prosecutions for these crimes are on the increase in several countries, including in the United Kingdom, the cases brought to the attention of authorities are thought to be only a small percentage of the true figures. 

Traffickers exploit children in a number of ways. They force them to work in sweatshops, as domestic servants, as street beggars, in agriculture, and in restaurants, hotels and other areas of the service industry. Children are also victims of sexual exploitation, illegal adoption rings, and some are forced to work in brothels or as part of prostitution rings. 


Also read: 

Listening to the Survivors of Human Trafficking


How Personal Experience Can Help Build Better Policy

Campaigning organization Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) works specifically with victims of child trafficking in the United Kingdom. Over 25 years of advocating for the rights of children and combating child trafficking, it has helped usher in stronger policies and initiatives to protect vulnerable children and provide better support for victims of child trafficking, exploitation and modern slavery.

Part of an international network of organizations of campaigning and research groups, the UK group grew out of a campaign to end child sexual exploitation in tourism in Thailand. Following this, and the First World Congress against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Stockholm, Sweden, ECPAT’s remit became global. Today it has 72 member groups in 65 countries. 

“One of our most important initiatives is a youth participation group for child victims of trafficking,” ECPAT UK’s Senior Policy, Research and Practice Officer Laura Duran says, adding that the project involves “activities for peer-to-peer support, different sorts of avenues for advancement in their interests, job placements," initiatives that really help recovery.

"And they also enable young people to get involved in every other aspect of ECPAT's work,” Duran says. This means that the people who have been subjected to trafficking have opportunities to help others who have had similar traumas and experiences, and to help prevent further cases in the future. One example is that these groups of young people take an active part in parliamentary events. ECPAT facilitates those who are interested in campaigning to ensure their voices are heard to help bring about change as policy is developed in this area. "We also have a capacity-building program so we deliver training to frontline professionals of all sorts, so that’s police, social workers, foster carers, care workers, lawyers, prison officers.”

The organization also successfully persuaded the UK government to update and reform a law that meant that people on the sex offenders list only had to inform the UK of their travel plans if the trip was more than three days. 


Getting the Story Right

ECPAT emphasizes the importance of getting the facts right, and warns against the dangers of disseminating disinformation about trafficking — disinformation that threatens the children and families most affected by trafficking and can build mistrust and an unwillingness among the public to take action against these crimes, whether it be through supporting policies at the ballot box or becoming engaged with NGOs such as ECPAT. 

It also highlights privacy concerns, and in 2018 launched a campaign to protect the identities of children held in refugee camps in Calais, France, particularly children who were unaccompanied. Over 5,000 people signed its campaign calling on the media to not reveal identities of vulnerable children, and to acknowledge that publishing photographs or personal details of these young people can risk their safety and security and potentially leave them exposed to hate crimes. “The language used by The Sun, the Daily Star, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express to describe these young people arriving from the 'jungle' camp in Calais is incendiary and inhumane,” the organization said. “The deliberate questioning of age, without due care to safety or lawful processes, has the very real potential to expose individuals to abuse, racism and hatred whilst in the UK.”

ECPAT is also committed to engaging with the media about the way it frames coverage about trafficking. In some cases, media have been clumsy and irresponsible, using language that potentially trivializes or stigmatizes the abuse or exploitation of children, and even depicts the victim as in some way criminal. The narrative and language around child trafficking and abuse is important, it argues, and often the damage done is not intentional, but instead due to the lack of information about how this language can shape wider debate. For example, the guidelines advise against using terms like “child pornography” or “child prostutition,” pointing out that this could suggest a degree of consent — which could never be the case with a child. Instead, ECPAT says the media should refer to “child exploitation” or “child exploitation materials.” When it comes to trafficking, ECPAT says the media should avoid referring to children as “illegal immigrants,” as this implies criminality. 

ECPAT also puts together anonymous composite case studies, material that can be used by the organization’s staff but also provides information for the wider public — to people hoping to know more about the issues affecting these children and families, and to journalists hoping to cover the issues with clarity, accuracy and compassion. One case study tells the story of “Qiro” who is forced to flee Iraqi Kurdistan in August 2016 after the area came under attack by ISIS. His story will be familiar to many children coming from war-torn countries, conflict zones, or countries where human rights are routinely violated, including Iran. Qiro’s family did what it could to improve his life, and turned to traffickers and smugglers to help them. His journey took him through Turkey and onto Greece, and he was eventually forced to work on a farm in southern Greece to pay off the debt he owed to traffickers. 

So what advice does Duran have for organizations and people working with and trying to help victims of human trafficking and people vulnerable to exploitation? “It's always really important that all practitioners working with vulnerable populations have a really strong skillset in trauma-informed practices, which is the type of practice that takes into account the impact of trauma in people's behavior.” She says it is key that a legal framework must be in place to ensure children and their families subject to immigration control, and who might fear deportation, have access to the support and protection they need, so that they have “the means to recover from the trauma that they've been through.” 


The Challenges of Brexit

Duran and her colleagues are well aware of the specific challenges the current political and cultural landscape of the UK presents to vulnerable people. She says Brexit — and even just the anticipation of it — is having a significant impact on ECPAT’s work. "It affects us in every sense. In terms of as a charity being able to access European funding, and for the young people we support and the officials helping them. The landscape is uncertain regarding the UK's future access to European law enforcement mechanisms like Europol and Eurojust. Also, in terms of immigration, there is also much uncertainty regarding child victims who are EU nationals, and particularly for unaccompanied children.”

Duran also says Brexit has created uncertainty regarding EU asylum regulations, for example the Dublin III Regulation, which was enacted in June 2013 to establish a mechanism that determines which European state is responsible for dealing with an asylum application. Under Dublin III, an individual or family usually seeks asylum in the first EU country they entered. “There's still a question around Dublin III mechanisms, so for children who would be transferred, for example, from Greece into the UK to be re-unified with family members, that's all still up in the air at the moment and will very much depend on how we leave the European Union.”

And Article 16 of the Dublin III regulations outlines that if a child seeking asylum has close family ties with a person living in an European Economic Area state, he or she can remain in the UK so that the family can stay together, although the UK has a very narrow interpretation of what constitutes a close family tie. "A child who has family members in the UK can access Dublin III and be moved to the UK to be reunited with their family members through legal routes so that they don't have to transverse the whole of Europe through smuggling networks, which will be really dangerous for them and put them at high risk of exploitation and abuse,” Duran says. 

But with Brexit due to take effect, ECPAT and other advocates for human rights and child safety, there is considerable concern that these measures could be under threat as immigration matters in the UK become more fraught. “The more austere immigration enforcement gets, the more precarious the situations are for victims of trafficking,” says Duran. “It makes it more likely that they will fall into exploitation, and it makes it less likely that they will be able to get support or approach any type of public official for help because of the fear around immigration enforcement.” 

With countries around the world becoming more entrenched in their harsh immigration policies — in some instances going against their governments’ pledges to uphold human rights and liberal values — refugees trying to usher their families to safety and migrants trying to provide a better life for them will face even harsher treatment and more unwieldy obstacles. Certainly, says Duran, the current climate threatens to foster what she describes as “isolation and nativism.”  In such an environment, many of these people will be vulnerable to exploitation. Given this reality, groups like ECPAT, and their work to protect and empower some of the most vulnerable people in societies, are more needed than ever. 


Also read: 

Listening the Survivors of Human Trafficking


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