Child Trafficking in the UK 2021: A Snapshot

Child Trafficking in the UK 2021: A Snapshot

Child Trafficking in the UK 2021: A Snapshot


As the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, I have a UK-wide remit to encourage good practice in the detection, investigation and prosecution of modern slavery offences, and in the identification of victims. My Strategic Plan 2019-2021 outlines four strategic priorities including improving victim care and support. Within this, I specifically highlight the need to improve the response to child victims of trafficking.

Since publication of the report Child trafficking in the UK 2020: A snapshot by ECPAT UK,* there have been a number of important policy developments in the context of child trafficking. There has been significant progress in relation to devolving National Referral Mechanism decisions for children, with ten local authority areas now involved in a pilot. The Independent Child Trafficking Guardian service has also been rolled out to a further one third of local authorities and three of the recommendations made by the Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act * ECPAT UK (2020) Child trafficking in the UK 2020: A snapshot 2015 are now being tested. Finally, the New Plan for Immigration and subsequent Nationality and Borders Bill have now been published, raising many questions about the potential impact of these proposals on children and specifically, child victims of trafficking.

This report has provided a welcome opportunity to work in partnership with ECPAT UK once more. It highlights examples of promising practice and innovation, both in terms of the safeguarding response to child victims, and in the prosecution of offenders. However, further work is needed to embed ‘what works’ nationally. Together, we have identified ten practical recommendations to direct efforts, and I look forward to working alongside ECPAT UK over the next year to encourage the implementation of these recommendations.

– Dame Sara Thornton DBE QPM, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner


ECPAT UK’s flagship publication on child trafficking has provided a periodic overview of the issues affecting children at risk of exploitation and child trafficking survivors in the UK since 2010. This year we are delighted to jointly produce our snapshot report alongside the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner to compile the latest statistics and policy developments for practitioners and policymakers alike. This joint report reflects the welcome focus and priority that Dame Sara gives to children in her role and draws on ECPAT UK’s experience of working with and for trafficked children and young people and frontline professionals and campaigning for change for more than 25 years. Detailing progress made towards better protecting and supporting children, this report raises critical concerns about the UK’s current response to child trafficking and provides our joint recommendations to ensure all children are protected from exploitation.

We have welcomed some positive steps to improve outcomes for children, with the roll out to two thirds of local authorities in England and Wales of the Independent Child Trafficking Guardian service, the launch of pilots for National Referral Mechanism devolved multi-agency decision making, and the Child Sexual Abuse Strategy. Covid 19 has continued to expose the impact of structural inequalities and the lack of investment to protect, support and care for children and I am very concerned about the undermining of children’s rights and of local authorities’ capacity for safeguarding responses to child victims of trafficking and those at risk.

Barriers to protection are rising whilst the data to help us understand children’s journeys and outcomes across the systems they must navigate is not available. I remain very concerned about the outcomes for migrant children with irregular immigration status as they transition to adulthood, an issue highlighted in our 2020 snapshot report. It is further exacerbated by measures in the Nationality and Borders Bill which risk rolling back progress made in tackling modern slavery and child protection, placing more children unprotected and at further risk. As referrals for potential victims exploited as children continue to rise every year, particularly those exploited for criminality, we remain concerned children will not be safeguarded from further exploitation and will continue to be criminalised.

Child trafficking is child abuse and requires a multi agency safeguarding response – one that puts children’s rights first and prioritises their protection. As children tell us every day, they need support to thrive not just survive. Structural barriers remain at the heart of stopping children from enjoying their rights following identification. Too many are languishing in unsuitable accommodation, without adequate mental health support, awaiting decisions in immigration limbo and in some cases facing significant harm. We encourage policymakers to adopt our ten recommendations as the first step to ensure all children are free from exploitation.

-Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK

Executive Summary

This snapshot report provides an outline of child trafficking in the UK between October 2020 and October 2021, including the latest data, policy developments, examples of promising practice and challenges faced by practitioners. It concludes with a series of ten practical recommendations aimed at a range of stakeholders. The report is a collaborative effort between the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and ECPAT UK following ECPAT UK’s previous snapshot reports, the first in 2010 to mark the first Anti-Slavery Day.

In this report, we highlight progress made as well as concerns for children at risk of and affected by trafficking. Despite the Covid 19 pandemic and the changes to the way that many frontline services have been operating, the number of child victims of trafficking remains high, accounting for 43.5% of all referrals in 2020/21 compared to 42.7% of all referrals in the previous year. Furthermore, it is notable that criminal exploitation accounted for more child National Referral Mechanism (NRM) referrals than all the other categories combined in 2020/21.

Prosecutions for modern slavery offences remain low but have increased slightly over the past year, with a steady conviction rate of 74% overall. In writing this report, we requested specific data on prosecutions for modern slavery offences committed against children. The age of the victims of such offences is not routinely recorded in court data which presents a significant data gap. In terms of good practice, this report highlights some examples from law enforcement in encouraging a consistent safeguarding response to unaccompanied children, as well as the use of ancillary orders in child trafficking cases. These are welcome efforts.

Over the past year there have been a number of significant policy developments in relation to child trafficking, including the implementation of a pilot to devolve NRM decision making to local safeguarding partners, as well as the continued national roll-out of the Independent Child Trafficking Guardianship (ICTG) service which is testing three of the recommendations made by the Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

The issues facing children in migration are also explored within this report. The Independent AntiSlavery Commissioner (IASC) requested updated data from the Home Office regarding the immigration outcomes for child victims, but this information was not provided in a timely manner for inclusion within the report. In July 2021 the government published the Nationality and Borders Bill as the cornerstone of its New Plan for Immigration. There are considerable concerns about the lack of attention paid specifically to protecting children throughout the Bill and that the proposals have the potential to have a considerable impact on both child victims of trafficking and children in migration who we know are at significant risk.

Finally, this report reflects on the current picture regarding research on child trafficking. It highlights how the scale and nature of child trafficking in the UK has been designated as a research priority by the Home Office, the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre and the IASC, but that despite such efforts more evidence and data is required to fill evidence gaps, inform effective responses, as well as to evaluate and assess the effectiveness of interventions.

Read full report here.

Learn more about ECPAT UK here.