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Children subject to immigration control more vulnerable to modern slavery

New research sheds light on the persistent challenges stemming from gaps in resources and policy, especially in the absence of a UK-wide Child Exploitation Strategy.

02/02/24

Children subject to immigration control more vulnerable to modern slavery

A new study has found gaps in resources and policy have led to an ‘alarming reality’ of modern slavery in the UK.

The collaborative study conducted by the University of Nottingham Rights Lab and ECPAT UK said there remains ‘persistent challenges’ stemming as a result of dwindling funding and misguided policy decisions.

The six-month investigation highlights the absence of a comprehensive multi-departmental child exploitation strategy, exacerbating the shortcomings in current legislation and leaving child victims inadequately protected.

Children are largely seen to be at risk of modern slavery due to the vulnerability of childhood, with many being targeted as a result of their age, experience, knowledge and maturity level. The study also highlights the increased vulnerability of children subject to immigration control, exacerbated by punitive migration policies.

The research exposes that insufficient resources pose a significant obstacle to prevention and early identification efforts, leaving children at risk of harm or, worse, unidentified as victims of modern slavery. With local authorities and police forces grappling with reduced budgets and escalating workloads, frontline professionals face severe limitations in their capacity to respond.

The report found that the ability to safeguard is compromised by a lack of awareness and confusion surrounding terms like ‘modern slavery’, ‘human trafficking’, and ‘child criminal exploitation’. Frontline professionals, tasked with identifying exploited children, often overlook crucial indicators due to legislative ambiguity, inadequate understanding, and insufficient training.

The study reveals large gaps in data collection and recording at a local level, exposing the inadequacy of the UK's broader child protection response. Through reviewing local policies and responses to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, the study further identified some poor levels of data collection and recording at a local level, which suggests that the UK’s wider child protection response to child victims is inadequate. In 2022, there was a staggering 29% increase in identified child victims of modern slavery was reported, with over 7,000 cases—a number believed to be conservative due to flawed identification methods.

Following their research, the teams from the Nottingham Rights Lab and ECPAT UK are calling for sufficient funding and resources across child protection departments and first responders and for the development of a national, cross-departmental Child Exploitation Strategy.

They also urge better local data collection mechanisms for a better understanding of all forms of child exploitation and to inform any national strategy.

Patricia Durr, CEO of Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK), said the research highlights the inadequacy of responses once children have been subjected to harm.

“Given the lack of a national strategy, investment in children and young people and the significant decline in resources for children’s services over the past decade, it is inevitable that local authorities are struggling to fulfil their basic statutory functions and have cut preventative services.

“In the immediate, we urge the government to halt its regressive and harmful policies which will see a significant increase in migrant children’s vulnerability to exploitation. We also emphasise the urgent need for a UK wide Child Exploitation Strategy that is truly cross-government, including devolved administrations and local government.

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