Ann Coffey


Commons speech on trafficked children

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5th December 2013

The Speech below was delivered in the House of Commons on 5th December 2013 in the Modern Slavery debate. The full debate can be found here.

I want to focus on how trafficked children are responded to – and in most cases – let down by our care system.

I am the chair of the All Party Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults. Last year we carried out a joint parliamentary inquiry, supported by the Children’s Society, into children who go missing from care, which highlighted the vulnerability and specific needs of trafficked children.

We found that trafficked children from abroad are being particularly let down by the care system and their needs are being ignored. Part of the problem is because the authorities view child trafficking as an immigration control issue.

Hundreds of them disappear from care every year, many within 48 hours.

Some run away shortly after arriving in the country on their way to children’s homes. And of the trafficked children that make it into local authority care, 60 per cent go missing and almost two thirds of those going missing are never found.

Our inquiry, which made a number of key recommendations, found that child protection frameworks exist but are not being triggered for trafficked children and the fact that these children are subject to immigration control is prioritised over and above their welfare.

Let us first consider how a trafficked child might enter the UK.

Many are smuggled in the backs of lorries through ports; but many others arrive at a UK airport accompanied by an adult trafficker.

The adult abandons the child in the airport with no identification, instructing them to claim asylum. Meanwhile the adult leaves the country as a transit passenger.

When picked up by the airport authorities, the child is then taken into the care of children’s services and taken to a home or hostel. Typically they have a phone number sown into the inside of their clothing and when it is safe to do so, they contact a handler and then disappear.

Traffickers also get to know where the children’s homes are situated.

One of the reasons many non-British trafficked children go missing from care is that they are groomed so effectively by their traffickers that they are so terrified of that might happen to them or their families if they break their bond or tell the authorities, that they run back to their traffickers.

Being exploited for labour is the most common form of exploitation of trafficked children, followed by sexual exploitation, cannabis cultivation, domestic servitude, benefit fraud, street crime and forced marriage. Many of the victims are subject to multiple forms of exploitation.

Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, told our inquiry how trafficked children are placed in inappropriate accommodation leaving them desperately vulnerable to further exploitation.

And in 2009 the Home Affairs Select Committee report on human trafficking expressed alarm that traffickers may be using the “Care home system for vulnerable children as holding pens for their victims until they are ready to pick them up.”

This situation is partly due to a lack of awareness of the indicators that a child might have been trafficked, combined with a lack of knowledge of the steps to take to prevent trafficked children from going missing – such as placing the child away from the local area where their traffickers are.

Budget constraints in local authorities and a culture that prioritises immigration control and criminal prosecution over child protection combined with a lack of specialist accommodation or foster care also contribute to the inadequate support that these young people receive.

Already this year there have been 1,500 trafficking victims – adults and children – identified by the National Referral Mechanism, according to the Human Trafficking Centre.

But data on children is very patchy and incomplete, which is why one of our recommendations was for a comprehensive and independent national system of data collection on trafficked children who go missing.

The recent reforms by the DfE to local authorities data collection system for children who go missing from care does not include data on trafficked children, nationality or immigration status.

Most professionals agreed that the best solution to help trafficked children to break contact with their traffickers was specialist foster care where carers are trained to identify and respond to specific issues and needs of trafficked children and know how to keep them safe.

We recommended that the pilot scheme run by the Department for Education and Barnardo’s to train more foster carers to support trafficked children and/or sexually exploited children should be rolled out nationally.

There is very limited provision of specialist accomodation for child victims of trafficking and many are being accommodated in B&Bs, hostels and supported lodgings, which do not give the level of supervision and specialist support needed to prevent them from going missing or being targeted for further exploitation.

This is despite government guidance issued by the DfE and Home Office in 2011 that trafficked children should be placed in foster care or residential care and that the local authority should assess the child’s vulnerability to the continuing control of their traffickers and take into account the risk that they will go missing.

A recent Newsnight investigation revealed that 15,728 children aged 16 and 17 years old asked for help with homelessness from local authorities. Of the local authorities that responded to an FOI request, 148 had unlawfully housed children in Band B accomodation in 2012, despite statutory guidance stating that this type of accommodation is not suitable for children. This is a problem for trafficked children as most will be in this age group.

As I said, many trafficked children often go missing before they are assessed with children’s services and before identification material has been taken.

That is why I strongly support the recommendation from CEOP and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) that photos, passport
numbers, nationality, fingerprints and DNA of the children are taken.

It would mean that if a child turns up months later in a cannabis factory or brothel or is charged with an offence in a different part of the country, then they could be identified as trafficked.

It is important that they have been photographed and identified as a possible trafficked child at the point of entry so that when they go missing and turn up they can be properly risk assessed.

It is also important that we understand that these children will never volunteer the information that they have been trafficked and so if we want to break the bond with the trafficker then the child should be given, at the point of entry to the country, an advocate or guardian or social worker to support them and encourage the formation of a trusting relationship.

If a child runs away within the first few days without ID then they become an invisible, lost child and if they do come to the attention of the authorities at a later stage without identification, then they will lose protection.

Only five out of the 64 local authorities who responded to our call for evidence even collect the nationality of children in care. Only two authorities, Hillingdon and Portsmouth, collect data on whether children have been trafficked at that time.

The attitudes to trafficked children from some professionals, witnesses told our Inquiry, were often negative and this had implications for the way the children were treated

We recommended that the Children’s Improvement Board should lead a programme of work to support local authorities to meet the needs of trafficked children through child protection frameworks.

Local authorities could also reflect on the needs of trafficked children in their annual sufficiency surveys.

A lack of knowledge amongst the police of the indicators that a child may have been trafficked is a key barrier to keeping these children safe. Also
a lack of knowledge among social workers about the asylum system and trafficking is a significant problem.

Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB), who train local authorities, report that 98% of social workers have not heard of the National Referral Mechanism nor have any clear understanding of the issues involved in identifying or protecting trafficked children.

The Inquiry heard from practitioners and the police that effective multi-agency working would improve information sharing and strategic responses.

We heard evidence of consistent failure of intelligence sharing between the UK Border Agency, the police and statutory and local authorities about organised criminal networks and trafficking trends.

Pat Geenty, ACPO lead on missing, told the Inquiry how the issue of missing needs to be recognised and referred into a multi-agency environment.

He said – and I quote _ “For me the Holy Grail is MASH, the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, in every police force in the country, if we can get those in place and we can bring our local authorities and our different agencies together in one room, all referrals going into case
management, we would have an opportunity of sharing information, sharing data much more effectively”.

I am aware that many MASHes are being set up but if the missing statistics that they share are not properly identifying children at risk of being trafficked because there is no efficient data collection system then those children will continue to fall through the net.

Hillingdon Borough Council have shown what can be done and have reduced the number of unaccompanied children that have gone missing to eight from 79 during 2007-2009 by establishing a 3 level multi-agency model (strategic, policy and operational) in partnership with law enforcement.

My concern is that other authorities, who have not got those levels of expertise, may not be identifying children as trafficked.

This is a complex area. But things could be done immediately like photographing and finger printing children who might be trafficked.

We need to take proper ID at airports so that when children go missing there is a record of them, identifying them as children who could be trafficked. It also makes it easier for photographs to be circulated so that all agencies are alerted to a trafficked child who goes missing.

These children also need a safe place to stay and a trusted person to help them.

Above all – to re-emphasise my previous point – they need to be included in the existing child protection system, for example the annual reports of the Local Children’s Safeguarding Boards, which will in future be inspected by Ofsted. That would make sure that they get the protection they need.

We are not going to stop the evil of trafficking children for exploitation until the people who do it believe that they are taking more risk than the profit they are being offered merits and one way of doing this is to make sure that their victims do not become invisible and lost in our country.

Irrespective of the immigration status of these children, they are still children. And they are entitled to the same protection as other children.

The problem is the safeguarding measures that we have for our own children are failing to protect trafficked children because of attitudes and lack of understanding; a lack of information and identification data and a proper risk assessment.

In fact…. all the factors that we hear in Serious Case Reviews. This must change.