Campaigners criticise government’s ‘half measure’ support for child trafficking victims

ECPAT UK warns personal advocate system for child victims of trafficking will lack the legal authority to make a real difference

Girl by window
Picture posed by model; Rex Features/Jeff Blackler

Child trafficking victims in care will be matched with personal advocates to help keep them safe, the government has announced.

Although the move, announced by home secretary Theresa May, has been welcomed by campaigners, some have raised concerns that the advocates won’t have the legal authority to make decisions on children’s behalf and hold authorities to account.

This could render them “toothless” and leave hundreds of children still at risk, according to the charity ECPAT UK, which has been campaigning for a system of legal guardianship for trafficked children for more than six years.

Chloe Setter, head of advocacy, policy and campaigns at ECPAT UK, said the announcement “recognises the unacceptable risk currently posed to child victims of trafficking in care”. “However, we have always maintained that child victims of trafficking require legal guardians who would act, as a parent would, in a child’s best interests.

“Advocates can only go so far and have no actual authority in decisions taken about a child’s life. Time and time again, we have seen some of the most vulnerable children in our society failed by those who are supposed to protect them,” she said.

Advocates will be assigned to children during two six-month trials where it is understood they will accompany them to meetings with immigration and welfare officials. It is not known how independent they will be, how they will be recruited or their exact remit.

The trial follows the publication of the draft Modern Slavery Bill, which is being discussed by a pre-legislative scrutiny committee and actively taking evidence on the best system to protect children.

ECPAT UK gave evidence last week in the first session of the committee, arguing for an effective system of independent guardianship, with the legal authority to act in the best interests of child trafficking victims.

“By announcing this trial now, the Home Office appears to be making a deliberate attempt to avoid legislating for legal guardians in the Bill, which is what campaigners working with trafficked children have been demanding for years,” Setter said.

“We welcome an early move to improve conditions and care for trafficked children, however, a half-measure such as ‘personal advocates’ will not meet the requirements of a fully-fledged system of guardianship.”

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