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UK: Trafficked children 'left at risk' by agencies

Publish Date: 17 May 2004

Source: The Guardian
By: David Batty

Trafficked children 'left at risk' by social services and police

Young people brought into the UK to be exploited for prostitution, domestic slavery, crime and benefit fraud are being left at risk of abuse by social services and the police, according to research published today.

A new report, by End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (Ecpat UK), says that trafficked children living throughout London suffer sexual and financial exploitation because professionals lack awareness of the problem and relevant training to deal with it.

Ecpat UK, a coalition of charities and campaign groups including Unicef, Barnardo's and Anti-Slavery International, warned that many cases of child trafficking may have been missed because of serious shortcomings within social services, the police and immigration officials.

The report - Cause for Concern? London Social Services and Child Trafficking - called for the creation of safehouses to protect victims of trafficking and from abusive adults; better communication within and between the capital's councils to raise awareness of the issue and the handling of individual cases; and more training to improve the care and support provided by social services and other agencies.

Twenty six of the 33 councils in London reported concerns about trafficked children. But none had any guidance explaining the issue of trafficking for social services or what to do if staff had concerns about a child.

Some social workers did not know what child trafficking was, while others wrongly believed there was no need to investigate the relationships between children and their supposed relatives or sponsors because they thought immigration services carried out such checks.

Seventeen London boroughs provided details about 35 cases of child trafficking. This covered 14 children exploited through domestic slavery, 13 by prostitution, one by prostitution and domestic slavery, three for benefit fraud and four through contraband trafficking and restaurant work to pay off 'debts' to traffickers. The majority of the children were African, with the remainder from Asia and eastern Europe. Only four were boys.

"Many of the social workers we interviewed felt that they may have missed cases of trafficking through not being aware of this issue," said Carron Somerset, the author of the report.

"It is critical for social workers to be provided with the tools that will enable them to carry out their work in this area. Without guidance, practice manuals and safe accommodation for trafficked children, the protection of those children and the prevention of trafficking will continue to be an almost impossible task."

The report also criticised the police for failing to follow up suspected cases of children trafficked for sexual exploitation. Some social workers surveyed said that the police "don't want to know" and officers treated the children as 'absconders' or asylum seekers, rather than child protection cases.

Ecpat's report coincided with an announcement by the Metropolitan police of plans to post child protection officers at Heathrow airport, the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station and the Lunar House Asylum Screening Unit in Croydon, in a bid to improve the identification of trafficked children.

The action followed a study by the police force which found that 1,738 children arrived at Heathrow between last August and November in suspicious circumstances. Social workers and the police was sufficiently concerned to carry out follow-up checks on 551 of these children. In most cases they were reassured but 12 children have yet to be traced.

Although the research found no evidence of wholesale child trafficking in the UK, it warned that the high number of unaccompanied children identified suggests that some were at risk of exploitation in the sex trade or for other purposes.

But the researchers acknowledged that the study, called Operation Paladin Child, only focused on one port of entry and on children without European Union (EU) passports.

The murdered eight-year-old child Victoria Climbié came into the UK through France on an EU passport, they noted.

Assistant commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, the head of the specialist crime directorate at the Met, said cases such as the murders of Victoria Climbié and Toni-Ann Byfield, shot dead alongside the crack dealer thought to be her father in London last year, underlined the importance of monitoring children entering the UK.

He said: "Given the nature and complexity of the issues surrounding child safety we cannot be complacent. It is absolutely crucial that we keep on the front foot and remain on the front foot in relation to addressing some of the issues in this regard."

David Bull, the executive director of Unicef UK, said the trafficking of children was "one of the most under-recognised and huge barriers" to child safety and well-being.

He said: "There needs to be top-level leadership and direction concerning trafficking of children into and through the UK. We need a multi-agency and multi-ministerial national strategy that can involve all the key players." © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004