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“I don’t have paper, I’m not free, I’m still in prison”: slavery victims tell their stories

Child victims of trafficking share their views and experiences in new research.


“I don’t have paper, I’m not free, I’m still in prison”: slavery victims tell their stories

Young victims of modern slavery have shared their experiences following identification of human trafficking through the UK immigration and social care systems in a new report.

The research focuses on the experiences of young victims of modern slavery, also subject to immigration control, who talk about their endurance of complex and protracted social care and criminal justice processes in the UK, emphasising the negative impact of UK immigration procedures, which many describe as being worse than experiences of human trafficking. They say these procedures undermine the recognition and realisation of their human rights and place them at risk of further abuse and exploitation.

In the report, young people highlight some troubling encounters with professionals, at times offering accounts of what they explicitly said they thought was racist and discriminatory attitudes from those whose duty it is to safeguard and ensure best interests.

“I used to go every single day to the social work office, talking to the manager of the social workers. That’s what he told me, ‘why don’t you go back to your country?’” one young person said.

“Since 16, my social workers put me with adults. They are 54 and 45 and they used to bring 20 people to the house,” another said.

Feeling and being safe is key to securing positive outcomes, the participants say, and that central to achieving this are systems and processes that are child-friendly and focus on creating safe environments in which young people can disclose exploitation.

Access to trusting relationships, independent guardians and high-quality legal advice were also emerged from the research. It is also important to the young participants that they are given opportunities to be heard, and freedom to contribute to society. One young victim of modern slavery said: “It is important for people to feel safe when they are sleeping in a new country…The staff need to be kind and nice because maybe people are coming from traumatic experiences. Staff have to be very understanding of what we have been through.”

The young participants highlight the multiple and persistent barriers to accessing documentation and the challenges involved in securing decisions relating to their immigration status – in 2019-20, only 2% of child trafficking victims with irregular immigration status in the UK were granted the leave to remain they are entitled to under international law. They talk about the distressing nature of the immigration process itself, and the difficulties presented by living for years in immigration ‘limbo’, while decisions on their status remained outstanding.

“I don’t have paper. Not free. Still in prison,” one participant said.

The report summarises the main findings from a 12-month participatory research study based on the voices of young people who have experience of modern slavery. The research aimed to understand what positive outcomes for these young people would look like, and what the pathways towards these positive outcomes might be. It examines how to ensure protection, and support for children who have experienced modern slavery. The research was led by the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Bedfordshire’s Institute of Applied Social Research, in partnership with ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking).

The report makes a series of recommendations to UK government and devolved administrations, calling for children identified as potential victims of slavery and trafficking to be promptly assigned an independent legal guardian, for the Home Office to ensure the immigration and asylum system does not re-traumatise children and for the Ministry of Justice to ensure all child victims can access a solicitor who has the expertise to properly represent them. The recommendations also highlight that all decisions about children must be made with their best interests as the primary consideration, and that local authority children’s services must enable psychological and physical recovery for child victims, particularly in the provision of safe accommodation and access to mental health services.

Professor Patricia Hynes, Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, Sheffield Hallam University, stressed the importance of children’s rights to be heard, participate and to be able to develop their lives and contribute to society.

“We found a real lack of focus in existing literature regarding these rights to personal development and this contrasts starkly with the way young people envisage their own futures. We also found that good practice exists to ensure young people affected by human trafficking can experience trusting relationships in spaces that are safe and offer some stability.

“If we are serious about enabling positive outcomes for all these young people, these examples of good practice could and should be replicated beyond the excellent work of a few outstanding organisations.”

Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK, said the research showed that the biggest barriers to achieving positive outcomes for young victims are embedded in the very systems that are designed to support them.

“[Participants] often find the UK immigration, social care and criminal justice systems to be discriminatory and re-traumatising. We have the means to listen to young people about these barriers – it’s critical that we uphold their right to be heard, and that we use these findings to re-shape UK systems so that they effectively protect and care for child victims of trafficking and exploitation.”

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