Child trafficking: research

Research on the routes and circumstances of children and young people who have been identified as victims of trafficking and exploitation in Scotland, and their experiences of support services.


This study is the first research in Scotland to draw on case file data and the views of young people and professionals to identify the complexities of child trafficking and to provide some indication of the routes (geographically, demographically and socially) young people have taken. As identified in previous literature, there is limited information in relation to many of these antecedents and, as such, the findings are largely indicative due to the dearth of accurate information available, and the limited number of agencies who engaged with the study.

While this research did not look specifically at the prevalence issue, it is apparent that referrals from Scotland are proportionately substantially lower than the UK as a whole. This raises questions about the accuracy of identification processes and actual numbers in Scotland. There was some evidence of the conflation of trafficking and smuggling, perhaps because of the focus on the 'indicators', rather than on actual exploitation. It also seems likely that Scotland is under-referring UK children as potential victims of trafficking compared with the rest of the UK. Again, this seems to reflect a focus on indicators in the NRM matrix, rather than the more complex issues of exploitation, especially in relation to sexual exploitation and exploitation for criminal activity of UK children. In this respect, the absence of UK nationals in the identified cases means that the findings of this study are focused on the experiences of non-UK nationals.

It is clear that children and young people exploited through trafficking, and en-route to Scotland, endured multiple exploitative and traumatic experiences. However, the extent and form of the exploitation experienced by the young people is not always clear in agency records, or NRM referrals, where systems appear to require recording procedures that 'mute' these experiences into a series of indicators, or a single type of exploitation. For those children and young people identified as potential victims of trafficking, the discrepancies and gaps highlight that information may be far from systematic and reliable (Godziak and Bump 2008).

The histories and backgrounds recorded in agency files appear to rely solely on the narratives of children and young people which, may be affected by recall and trauma (Samuelson 2011). Children and young people may share different stories, or parts of their experience, with different professionals (Kohli 2006).

Without additional and independent evidence, it can be difficult for professionals to make sense of information from the potentially numerous countries, situations and people children have encountered on their journeys, especially if children are reticent about sharing (Rigby and Whyte 2015). The variation in the narratives and stories of young people presented in agency records, while understandable in terms of complex journeys and potential trauma issues, raises the question of why some agency accounts are given primacy over others, and why credibility is raised as an issue. A child's physical and psychological journey into exploitation is neither a one-off event (Hynes 2010), nor one that can be readily identified via any one simple narrative for the purpose of identification and support, or asylum decisions.

Due to the limited information regarding journeys and backgrounds, professional comment tended to focus on current circumstances in terms of child protection, asylum and system processes. Young people also focused on the systems and their understanding of these processes. Professionals were particularly concerned about the conflation of child protection and asylum issues. Both case file data and professional responses suggest that timescales for the NRM referrals and asylum system predominate, despite Scottish child protection procedures being at the fore in child trafficking policy and guidance.

It was clear that young people especially focused on the time it took to develop trusting relationships, suggesting that disclosing painful and distressing background details cannot always be the priority. In this respect there is a tension between the 'system' needing to understand the situation, gather information, and provide appropriate support and protection immediately (based on the past), and young people's attempts to look forward and develop a clearer sense of self in their new environment, and their future.

To accommodate these often competing priorities, there may be a need to place greater emphasis on the complexities, uncertainties and risks, while ensuring the systems work to meet the needs of children and young people. For professionals, there was some confusion around trafficking and indicators, unclear referrals to the NRM, inconsistent adherence to child protection/child-centred procedures and tensions between the welfare and asylum systems. For children and young people their uncertainty coalesced around unknown futures and constant telling and re-telling of stories.

It appears that most of the young people identified in the index time-period remain in contact with services and, in general, young people appeared to be settling well in Scotland, engaged in education and/or work and appreciating and engaging well with other support services. Young people provided largely positive accounts of their interactions with professionals, especially with the Scottish Guardianship Service. However, despite the development of good relationships, for many young people a sense of uncertainty remained as they awaited decisions on whether they would be granted leave to stay in the country.

Professionals still had concerns around continued exploitation for some young people, an issue reflected in some of the case files. Linked to these residual concerns around continued exploitation, one of the biggest gaps in agency records was the poor understanding of the modus operandi of traffickers and their networks, an issue that has been apparent for several years (Godziak and Bump 2008). Two thirds of agency records had no details about traffickers in Scotland. This is an area of work that requires attention given the focus in Scotland's Human Trafficking and Exploitation strategy on perpetrators.

Despite some concerns about possible continued exploitation, none of the young people identified for this study had gone missing. However, while the numbers of child trafficking victims missing across Scotland is lower than the UK as a whole, it is known that young people do go missing on a permanent basis (MacSween 2013; Rigby et al 2012). This is an area that requires more in-depth investigation, particularly in relation to the number of Vietnamese young people presently disappearing across the UK (ECPAT 2019).

Overall, the individual, multifaceted social and demographic circumstances, journeys, and multiple exploitative experiences of children and young people trafficked to Scotland, make it problematic in identifying clear patterns. Reflecting previous research in Scotland and elsewhere, profiling trafficked children to aid future identification of potential victims and to prevent trafficking has proven to be difficult (Brennan 2005; Rigby 2009; Rigby et al 2012). As such, patterns of journeys and exploitation, and comparisons between young people, especially with the relatively small numbers in Scotland, are unlikely to be instructive for training, informing preventative and support services, and perhaps more importantly for decision-making.

The relatively small numbers identified in Scotland, and the complexity of the issues, also result in some contradictory findings and responses. The contradictions of responses to trafficking have been well documented (Vance 2011; Lynch and Hadjimatheau 2017) and generally relate to the focus on border controls to 'protect' potential victims and the paradox of increasing risk through alternative entry routes.

This is clearly highlighted in the present study where there is a tension between the safety and protection of children and young people, and immigration concerns over the veracity of their stories and credibility as migrant children. These tensions and contradictions are exacerbated in Scotland by the devolved responsibilities of the child protection system and the border control responsibilities reserved to Westminster.

In moving forward, engagement with the complex social, economic and political factors that lead to exploitation, while focusing on needs, may be the required starting point for protecting young people. Taking young people's views into account for any future work must have at its core their need for secure and trusting relationships. The accounts of young people suggest that services in Scotland are, on the whole, providing the foundations for security, with good relationships developed, despite some of the systemic and procedural issues identified.



Back to top