Safe houses win support in battle to keep pace with child traffickers

Nearly two years after the torso of a Nigerian boy clothed only in
a pair of orange shorts was found floating in the Thames, 200
police arrested 21 people last week.

Investigations into the case of “Adam”, who pathologists estimated
was aged between four and seven, centred on the possibility that he
had been trafficked from Africa to London for ritual killing.

His murder prompted an international investigation and shone a
light into the underground world of child trafficking that,
according to the Stop the Traffic report published by Unicef last
week, may involve 1.2 million children worldwide (news, page 6, 31

Few will meet the same fate as Adam, but most will be sold into
lives of exploitation. Many will go into the commercial sex
industry but others will go into domestic slavery and some will be
used as tools in benefit frauds.

The UK is receiving a rising number of trafficked children. There
are about 200 known cases but Unicef believes this may be “the tip
of the iceberg” with the true number running into thousands.

For agencies trying to protect children who are trafficked into the
country, confirmation of the scale of the problem is worrying,
particularly as most councils are woefully unequipped to deal with

Carron Somerset, campaign officer at End Child Prostitution and
Trafficking, says social services “lack knowledge and awareness”
about child trafficking. “It’s not their fault because nobody has
ever told them about it,” she says.

Research by Somerset into the experience of trafficking in London’s
32 councils, has revealed many social workers only realise
retrospectively that they have dealt with trafficked children
because they did not recognise the signs at the time.

Among the recommendations in Unicef’s report is that social
services, along with health professionals and immigration officers,
should have training on how to identify traffickers, the methods
they use and the results and reasons for exploitation.

Even for councils such as Hillingdon, which deals with 600
unaccompanied minors at any one time, most arriving at nearby
Heathrow airport, identifying trafficked children is fraught with

Head of children’s services Kamini Rambellas says: “A major
challenge for all agencies is identifying those children who may be
at risk, as distinct from the thousands of children who
legitimately enter the UK for holidays and so on.”

Trafficked children usually turn up at ports unaccompanied and are
placed in care by social services where they stay until contact is
made with their trafficker and they flee. But a key recommendation
of the Unicef report is for a network of safe houses to be set up
to protect trafficked children.

Unicef urges the government to centrally fund two or three safe
houses around the country to support trafficked children referred
by local authorities. To thwart the trafficker, the child would not
be placed in the area near the port of arrival.

Somerset says the safe houses should be run and staffed by private
companies because social services are under “too much pressure” and
children could be given 24-hour protection by a team of specialist
workers for a month before being sent elsewhere. Italy, Belgium and
the Netherlands – already aware of trafficking issues – have
adopted the model and, says Somerset, it works well.

The UK does already have a safe house, in West Sussex. It
accommodates children arriving at Gatwick airport. But, even though
it is used as a model of good practice by social services
departments, the council is to close it, citing “lack of demand”

It was set up in 1999 because a number of west African girls in
local authority care were disappearing, a trend that began in 1995
when one went missing and which steadily increased to nine a year
by 1998.

Somerset describes the safe house as a “victim of its own success”.
Its existence became known to traffickers who, angry about losing
the children – each is worth £25,000-£40,000 in potential
earnings to them – to the authorities, have started to head for new

West Sussex Council now plans to use foster carers, a decision
Somerset believes is a mistake.

“Foster families might not be able to create the right environment.
The safe house is crucial because it offers specialist workers who
can gain the trust of the children, some of whom will have been
involved in voodoo rituals and told that their parents will die if
they don’t carry out the demands of the trafficker,” she

But the council stands by its decision saying children will be
better protected than they were in the safe house, which has become
widely known among traffickers.

But is it reasonable or fair to expect foster carers, particularly
those with children, to take on the 24-hour protection of
trafficked children? In the same way that some foster carers are
willing to care for children from dangerous families, some may want
to help with trafficked children. But it must be asked whether
enough carers would want to take that risk.

Libby Fry, children’s services manager of a Barnardo’s young
women’s project, worries they may be in danger if traffickers trace
the child, a definite risk considering the traumatised and
terrified children are instructed to contact them.

She adds that the people working with trafficked children do a
“highly specialised job” and doubts whether a period of training
for foster carers, as West Sussex plans, will be enough to help
them deal with the complex problems they will face.

Somerset hopes the government will provide the money for the safe
houses and points to the Home Office-funded nine-month pilot
project for women who have been trafficked as evidence of a new
commitment to tackling the problem.

“Our view is that if they can do that for adults the same should be
afforded to children,” she says.

Not so long ago the police were likely to put trafficking cases,
which is not illegal, into the “too difficult” tray because it did
not slot into a specific crime, says Somerset.

But the Sexual Offences Bill, which is going through parliament,
will change that by creating a new crime of trafficking for sexual
exploitation. The hundreds of children exploited as domestic
servants will, though, remain unprotected under the law.

The law seems to be on the side of traffickers who, if Unicef’s
statistics are accurate, appear to be several steps ahead of
agencies charged with protecting children. Last year, a dozen
unaccompanied African girls turned up in Newcastle upon Tyne, a
city with no history of dealing with trafficked children.

Encouragingly, the girls were recognised as fitting the profile of
trafficked children and placed in residential care. But it shows
traffickers are trying to outsmart the authorities by widening
their operations to places where they feel their trade will go

Clearly, every council should learn more about the issue because
their area may just be the next one targeted. 

Stop the Traffic from

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.