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Lord McColl: Slipping through the net – trafficked children are left alone and vulnerable

McColl LordLord McColl of Dulwich, CBE is a British surgeon, professor, politician and Conservative member of the House of Lords. He has been an advocate for the survivors of human trafficking in the House of Lords for many years, bringing forward several Private Member's Bills on the issue.

Human trafficking has been a blight on British society for many years, yet still not enough is being done to help vulnerable children who are victims of this hideous crime.

A new report, ‘Still at Risk’, released today by the Refugee Council and The Children’s Society, shows that too many of these children are not being protected by the very agencies that are supposed to be supporting them. These are children who have been forced into a range of slavery and subjected to such horrific abuse as domestic servitude, forced criminality and sexual exploitation.

Often, they do not even know they are being trafficked or that what is happening to them is wrong.  

Their traffickers threaten them with physical violence, frighten them into not trusting the police or strangers, and tell them if they try to get help that their families will be hurt. Despite the fear, some do escape and try to get help.

Sadly the report’s findings show that our care system is failing to protect and support them adequately. Instead of finding safety and being provided with the specialist care needed as traumatised children, some are sent to prison or detention centres.

In part, this is because their immigration status is taking centre stage, rather than their needs as vulnerable children and victims of abuse. As a result, for some, their age is doubted and the information given on the false documents provided by traffickers, is believed. Because of this, they are put in inappropriate housing without proper full-time care. This leaves them vulnerable to being re-trafficked and at risk of further abuse.

It is a shocking indictment of our priorities as a nation that we should take such poor care of these extremely vulnerable children. They must get the support they need as child victims of a brutal crime, regardless of their nationality, age or immigration status. Anything less is unacceptable.   

A key way forward to ensure that all children can get the support they need, as proposed in this report, is by providing all children who are potential victims of trafficking, with an independent, trusted adult. Someone who is on their side, who can guide them through what is an extremely complex and frightening system, and who can ensure that they understand what is happening to them. This will help them get housing appropriate to their age and needs, so they can recover from the abuse they have been subjected to and be kept safe from further exploitation.

The argument for guardians has been well-made by a number of expert bodies. The Joint Committee for Human Rights in its inquiry into the rights of unaccompanied migrant children and young people recently called for a guardianship pilot to be conducted in England and Wales. The US State Department, in its comprehensive overview of trafficking in 188 countries, has also recommended that the UK establish a system of guardianship for unaccompanied foreign children.

The Government has an ideal opportunity to see this proposal through as it prepares its Modern Slavery Bill. It is vital the Government takes bold steps to implement the report’s call for specialist guardians for trafficked children, and to address the other gaps in care identified in order to protect child victims of trafficking.

For more about the report’s findings, see ‘Still at Risk: A review of support for trafficked children’ published by the Refugee Council and The Children’s Society.


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