Pressure is growing on Theresa May to tackle human trafficking and halt the disappearance from care of hundreds of children. Despite unveiling a parliamentary bill to end what she called an “evil in our midst”, May will this week face criticism for failing to include proposals that would see professional guardians caring for suspected victims, a system likely to be urged in a Children’s Society report.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, joined the calls for child guardians. “The system is failing them. Those who work with trafficked children, including charities and organisations that support victims, see this as a vital change to prevent modern slavery,” she said.
Cooper added: “Independent advocates can ensure a trusted adult becomes known to the child, rather than their trafficker being the only person they know in the country. When these children go missing, when they should be safe having been identified to the authorities, there is a strong chance the children return to their traffickers.”
The number of children identified as potential victims rose by 12% last year, according to a recent report by the UK Human Trafficking Centre. It identified 2,255 potential child victims – up from 2,077 the previous year.
Advocates of guardianship say it would ensure secure housing, education and legal support to stop trafficked children falling back into the hands of their exploiters.
Solicitor Philippa Southwell, of London-based Birds solicitors, works with young people who have been convicted and jailed for crimes committed as a result of being trafficked. She specialises in helping them overturn their convictions. Within days of her clients being released, many of them will have gone missing, believed to be back in the hands of traffickers. “You have to prepare for the event that they are going to disappear, it’s happened in a huge number of my cases.” Most never know that she has managed to overturn their criminal conviction and clear their names.
Southwell usually meets her clients in prison after they have been convicted. Most are Vietnamese and have been brought into the country by their traffickers and forced to work in cannabis factories or in other forced labour.
“It’s explained to them that there are things we can do to help them rebuild their life and that the first step is to appeal [against] their conviction. But these are very vulnerable young people who have a real distrust for authorities.
“It’s very difficult to build the trust, because the legal system has previously let them down. I often have to explain to them that they are not criminals but victims,” added Southwell.
Philip Ishola, director of the Counter Human Trafficking Bureau, believes that preventing children from falling back into the hands of traffickers can also be achieved through the provision of specialist accommodation.
“The missing rate is alarming. For trafficked children there are so many risks, and for Vietnamese children that risk is magnified because it’s such a closed environment that children are trafficked within. It’s a really specialist knowledge and understanding. That knowledge is there – thousands of social workers have been trained – but the huge gap is in safe accommodation. For a Vietnamese placed in foster care or a children’s home, we know from experience that in two days you will be lucky if the child is still there.”
Despite a growing understanding of the need to protect trafficking victims from prosecution, experts say there are still major flaws in how victims are treated within the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, claims for damages against police and local authorities for failure to properly support victims of trafficking is a growing area for lawyers. Tony Murphy, a partner at Bhatt Murphy, said: “We are using the Human Rights Act to call public authorities to account for failing to protect these victims. It is an indictment on our society that the state should need to be forced by litigation to address a crime as heinous as human trafficking.”
For Southwell, the problem of finding missing children will remain difficult because of the absence of anyone to pressure police. “They have little or no support in the UK by way of family or friends because as soon as they are smuggled into the country they are immediately taken to a cannabis house and forced to work for months and sometimes years without leaving the premises,” she said.
“Rachel” (not her real name) was trafficked into the UK from Nigeria when she was 15. She was placed in foster care but her traffickers found her, approaching her as she walked to school, and took her to work in a brothel in London. She was picked up by police in a raid on the brothel following a tipoff.
Despite the fact that they were told an underage girl was working there, they arrived with a journalist in tow. “The police said ‘put your head down’,” because a reporter was around, Rachel said. “They took me to the police station, took my fingerprint and bag and locked me in a cell. Then they let me out onto the street.” The police didn’t ask her any questions about who was running the brothel, she said.
With nowhere to go, Rachel had no option but to move in with a client from the brothel and was eventually picked up again, this time in an immigration raid. She was detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, where a solicitor recognised that she had been trafficked.
“She said I looked like a trafficking victim and that because of my age I didn’t have control over myself. I felt ashamed and I was crying. It shocked me that she knew about these things – at first I didn’t trust her.”
Rachel’s lawyer put her in touch with the Poppy Project, which supports trafficked women, and she is now studying at college, having been given leave to remain in the UK. Human rights law firm Bhatt Murphy is currently suing the Metropolitan Police, Home Office and the London Borough of Newham over Rachel’s treatment.