Hundreds of potentially trafficked children ‘abandoned by Home Office’ | Global development

Hundreds of children identified as potential victims of trafficking are being abandoned by the Home Office and left vulnerable to exploitation, new data reveals.

Released following a freedom of information (FoI) request, figures show that in 2022, 1,871 children identified as possible victims of trafficking or modern slavery dropped off the UK government system conceived to support them once they turned 18.

To access comprehensive help in the UK, suspected victims are assessed under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). About half of the children who fell out of the NRM when they turned 18 were British.

In total, 70% of the 2,634 children who turned 18 while waiting to be formally identified as a trafficking victim disappeared from the NRM. Half of them had their cases “suspended” by the Home Office as a result of them not giving their consent to stay in the system, while another 20% actively withdrew from the scheme.

Many children do not realise they need to give consent to remain listed on the NRM. Some are not even aware that they have been referred to it.

Anti-trafficking charities described the figures as “alarming”, urging sweeping reforms to protect young victims.

Eleonora Fais, coordinator of the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, a coalition of 17 UK-based anti-trafficking organisations, said: “This data is a wake-up call. We urgently need to improve our services, so that children can receive the support they need.”

Patricia Durr, chief executive of the children’s rights charity ECPAT UK, said: “We are deeply troubled by this alarming data.

“The findings underscore the urgent need for systematic reforms to ensure that young victims of trafficking are not left vulnerable and unsupported as they transition into adulthood,” she added.

The improvements being called for include the rolling out of independent child trafficking guardians – someone who advocates on the youngster’s behalf – to all councils in England and Wales.

The data, which is the latest available, revealed that only 6% of children who turned 18 in the NRM went on to receive support under the government’s modern slavery victim care contract, which is designed to help victims.

Rachel Medina, chief executive of the Snowdrop Project, a Sheffield-based charity that provides long-term support to survivors of modern slavery, which submitted the FoI requests, said: “Worryingly, hundreds of children are falling through gaps in the systems that are meant to protect and support victims of modern slavery.

“The government must take responsibility to ensure that no child’s right to support is overlooked.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The targeting, grooming and exploitation of children is deplorable and we remain firmly committed to working with the police and with delivery partners to tackle this horrific crime.
“We have introduced the independent child trafficking guardianship services across England and Wales, which provide an additional source of advice and support for potentially trafficked children. The modern slavery victim care contract provides support to consenting adults in England and Wales.”
A source added that the NRM is consent-based for adults and that if a child becomes an adult after being referred, their consent is required for the process to continue.

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