The trafficking of young people into the UK
represents a tough challenge for police, local authorities and the
judiciary. Things would be made easier if it was actually made
illegal. Rachel Downey reports.
Every week an unknown number of young people
arrive at entry ports to the UK, bewildered, terrified, confused
and alone. They hand their forged documents to immigration
officials, ask to make a call and wait. Within hours an adult
claiming to be a relative or a lawyer picks them up.
These young people are victims of people
traffickers. They are brought to the UK to be used in prostitution
or domestic exploitation. Others are trafficked through the UK to
other European destinations.
The majority of young women trafficked to be
used in prostitution come from West Africa. An established
trafficking route exists to bring young women to northern Italy,
via the UK, while others come to the UK along the same routes used
by Eastern European women working in the sex industry. Still more
are trafficked alongside adults by Chinese traffickers.
Most are tricked into coming. The West African
victims are often initiated into cults and magic ceremonies are
used to tie them to traffickers. “Curses” are placed on them and
the only way for the curse to be lifted is for them to repay the
cost of the journey out of Africa. Sometimes their family takes out
a loan, which the young woman has to repay. The debt is often a
myth: either the young woman or her family are not told how much
they owe; the sum is given in another currency; or the debt grows
because of “expenses”. Sometimes the young women are forced to work
as prostitutes by men they thought were their boyfriends.
According to police, trafficking people can be
as lucrative as trafficking drugs, but its risks are far smaller.
Successful prosecutions are rare, as traumatised young people make
unreliable witnesses. Their stories are inconsistent – they have
been told to lie and become confused. Defence barristers find it
all too easy to tear their testimonies apart.
And the traffickers are ruthless. Plans to try
and stop trafficked young people boarding planes in West Africa
have been scuppered. Two British immigration officials had been
based at Lagos airport, Nigeria, but last year the LandRover in
which they were travelling was riddled with bullets from automatic
shotguns. They escaped serious injury but returned to the UK.
Detailed statistics on the number of
trafficked children coming into the UK are unavailable. But
agencies provide anecdotal evidence that it does occur and that
there is no sign of it abating. So what are care agencies doing to
protect these extremely vulnerable young people – and is it
The task of protecting young people who have
been, or are at risk of being, trafficked has fallen largely to two
social services departments that cover the UK’s two main airports –
West Sussex and Hillingdon.
In 1995, West Sussex social services’s child
asylum team realised that many of the West African young women it
was picking up at Gatwick were being trafficked. After a few days
in care, the young women – primarily from Nigeria and Sierra Leone
– would make contact with their trafficker and leave. The team
began monitoring the numbers, set up a structure for joint working
with the police and immigration, and drew up a profile of those at
risk. Three years ago it contracted a private company to run a safe
house for the young women.
The team works closely with police and
immigration services, and alongside a project for unaccompanied
asylum seeking children run by the Family Welfare Association. “The
girls are very quiet. They will not make eye contact and it’s very
difficult to form any relaxed relationship with them,” says team
leader Mary Benton. “They have a different agenda. They are very
withdrawn because they are terrified, with very good reason, of
everything. It takes social workers and support staff in the safe
house a long, long time to make inroads.”
Initially, staff were reluctant to outline in
detail what life awaited the girls if they contacted their
traffickers. Now they are upfront. “I do not know whether they know
what future has been planned for them – they probably have an idea
already,” Benton adds. “But simply acknowledging why we want to put
a circle of protection around them has a therapeutic effect.
The young women stay about three months at the
safe house and they are closely supervised. One-to-one work is not
successful with this group of young women, she explains. “The
activity-based approach is the way to engage with these young women
and to forge relationships.” A worker was once threatened but there
has never been any direct confrontation between the staff and the
traffickers. As Benton puts it, the traffickers’ methods are “more
subtle and more clever”.
The strategy worked. Some of the young women
still try and contact their traffickers, but the number is now far
smaller. Between September 1995 and August 2001, 66 young people
who were believed to be trafficked went missing from West Sussex’s
care. Last year, 20 were profiled as at risk and three went
However, the social workers must remain on
their guard. Benton explains that some of the young people who
arrive unaccompanied at Gatwick are in fact plants for the
traffickers. They work as links in the chain and warn the young
women of their “debts”.
“It’s not about good and bad – it’s about
shades,” she says. “Many young women may be able to stay with us
but not to sever the links totally. Or they retain their links so
there may still be dialogue between them and the traffickers. It’s
about us reducing the risk and keeping them in this country so they
can lead more normal lives.”
At Hillingdon, the area child protection
committee has established a sub-group on child trafficking, which
is developing its own profile of those at risk. Head of children’s
services Steve Liddicott estimates that in nine out of 10 cases
when social services pick up young people at Heathrow, they come
into care. Social workers use a local in-house residential unit or
foster carers to place them. They do not have the numbers to
justify setting up a specific safe house.
The social services department does not
monitor the numbers it suspects are at risk of trafficking. A few
years ago, up to four young people went missing from care and it is
suspected they ran to traffickers. According to Liddicot there are
currently about six or seven children in care who could have been
at risk of being used for benefit fraud or domestic
The current system is inadequate. Social
services departments are already struggling to provide for the
number of unaccompanied refugee young people they are responsible
for. Hillingdon has almost 600 in its care, 200 of whom are under
18, while West Sussex has just fewer than 300. On top of the
central government grant for asylum seeking children – currently
£575 a week for those under 16 – West Sussex has to spend an
additional £700,000 a year from its children’s services budget
of £36m to fund its child asylum team.
End Child Prostitution, Pornography,
Trafficking (Ecpat) is a coalition of children’s charities and
non-government organisations that recently published research into
child trafficking.1 The research suggests that councils
should not be left to provide the services needed.
“Trafficking is not a core activity for any
agency,” says Elizabeth Little, chief executive of the Refugee
Arrivals Project, who wants a new specialist agency to co-ordinate
existing services. An inter-agency protocol is needed, she argues,
as individual organisations often do not talk to each other,
particularly women’s refuges, HIV clinics and the immigration
“The only way that anyone is going to make any
progress is if we all hold hands and do it together,” she adds. “We
need a proper way of identifying the kids and a proper protection
system. Otherwise the law will sit on the statute book.”
But Steve Liddicott claims it would be very
difficult for a national specialist agency to provide the
protection needed. “It’s a very complicated issue. While we accept
there are voluntary organisations with knowledge in this area that
we do not have, what we have is knowledge and experience in child
protection and the looked-after system.” He is looking to the
proposed new reception centres for asylum seekers for a solution
and says informal discussions are under way to examine how they
could be used for children.
Meanwhile, trafficked children are slipping
through because social services cannot provide the round-the-clock
support that immigration officers need. John Tincey, deputy general
secretary of the Immigration Service Union, says officers are often
forced to allow a child about whom they have concerns to take off
with someone purporting to be a relative. Flights from West Africa
rarely arrive when due. “We cannot predict when they might come –
often it is the middle of the night or early in the morning. Then
we struggle to find someone.”
Outside office hours, if Heathrow immigration
officers suspect a young person is being trafficked they have to
contact the one emergency duty social worker, who covers all crises
in Hillingdon throughout the night. Liddicott says his department
cannot afford to employ additional staff.
Unfortunately, even if immigration officers do
succeed in detaining traffickers, there is only a small chance that
they will face a prosecution. There is no law against trafficking
per se. Laws against sexual offences – currently under review – can
be used but sentences are short: for encouraging a child under 16
into prostitution the maximum sentence is just two years. And
prosecutions often rely on testimonies, which trafficked girls are
usually too frightened to provide.
So judges’ hands are tied. And they are not
happy about it. Mr Justice Peter Singer, a high court judge in the
family division, last month called for specific laws to tackle
But Elizabeth Little received a letter from
Home Office minister Jeff Rooker last month claiming the numbers of
trafficked people entering Britain had fallen. “Absolute rubbish,”
she says, explaining that the minister used the fact that the only
police investigation in the UK into the trafficking of children –
Operation Newbridge – was ended after the Crown Prosecution Service
ruled a prosecution would fail because of lack of evidence. Not one
of the young women in the care of West Sussex has ever testified
against their trafficker. “That is why a change to the legal system
is so essential,” says Little. “It would lead to an increase in
resources for the police to tackle traffickers.”
However, it is only a matter of time before
the trafficking of adults and children is outlawed in the UK. At
the end of 2000 the government signed the UN convention against
transnational organised crime, which requires the specific
criminalisation of human trafficking. And the UK is currently
negotiating the details of a recent European Commission
communication that requires EU member states to introduce
legislation to outlaw human trafficking and child sexual
exploitation, which it has two years to implement.
Social workers, voluntary workers, immigration
officials, police officers and judges are all waiting.
1 End Child Prostitution,
Pornography, Trafficking, What the Professionals Know: The
Trafficking of Children into, and through, the UK for Sexual
Purposes, ECPAT, November 2001
– For more information see Ayotte W,
Williamson L, Separated Children in the UK: An Overview of the
Current Situation, Refugee Council and Save the Children,
2001. Also Family Law Working Group, Report on the Cross-border
Movement of Children, Society of Advanced Legal Studies,
Steps to combat trafficking
– Services for children who have been
trafficked, including safe houses, counselling, independent legal
advice and permanent residency for all at risk.
– Unaccompanied minors thought to be at risk
should be placed under care orders.
– Unaccompanied minors should have their
travel documents looked after by a member of the airline staff and
should be escorted to immigration.
– Children arriving with a suspicious
“relative” should be interviewed separately by immigration
officials and appointed a solicitor.
– Awareness-raising campaigns should be run
both here and in countries of origin.
– Protocols between social services and
– Trafficking is often related to conditions
of poverty, poor employment opportunities and unstable countries –
these areas should be addressed.
Source: End Child Prostitution, Pornography,