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.


The Scottish Government Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy (2017) identified the need for Scotland-wide research to explore experiences of child trafficking in Scotland. This study, commissioned by the Scottish Government, aimed to provide an overview of how many children and young people had been identified as victims of human trafficking, to establish their geographic and demographic routes into Scotland and their experiences of professional responses. The research employed case file analysis and interviews with young people and professionals to illuminate these issues. For the index time-period for the research, no UK nationals were identified for the case file analysis. Consequently, the focus of the research was on children and young people who came to the UK across international borders.

The study highlights that individual journeys, multifaceted social and demographic circumstances, and multiple exploitative experiences of children and young people make documenting clear patterns problematic. Despite the complexities, support for children and young people is apparent across agencies and is appreciated by young people. The support operates within a largely child-centred Scottish policy, although practice does not always fully reflect policy imperatives and there are particular concerns from professionals about systems and processes that span UK and Scottish legislative frameworks and the subsequent impact on children's wellbeing.

Complexities of exploitation and limited information

Due to the limited information available and the number of agencies who engaged with the study, the findings are not definitive although they provide commentary on the complexities of children and young people's lives and aspects of child trafficking responses in Scotland. While comment cannot be made on the reliability of what is, or is not, recorded in any individual organisational system, the research found that decisions made in relation to welfare, legal and asylum issues were often made on the basis of partial information.


While this research did not look specifically at prevalence, it did identify that the referral of UK and Scottish nationals to the NRM remains low in Scotland when compared to the rest of the UK, although the reason for this is currently unknown.

Multiple routes and experiences

Children and young people identified as victims of human trafficking had endured multiple exploitative and potentially traumatic experiences in home countries, in transit and in Scotland/UK. However, there were few clearly identifiable common background circumstances, journeys or exploitative experiences that could easily inform training, identification and support. While Vietnam is presently the country of origin for the majority of identified victims of child trafficking, there remain many unknown features and aspects of journeys and routes for most children. The identification and profiling of child victims of human trafficking in Scotland remains problematic.

Multiple processes, re-telling stories and system trauma

The study identified concerns that, on arrival in Scotland, children and young people endured additional trauma through the various systems and processes they were exposed to. Young people were particularly concerned about their lack of understanding of the various systems and, in relation to asylum decisions especially, often waiting for considerable periods before being told what was going to happen to them. Professionals expressed concern about the intersection of child protection, trafficking and asylum issues across different legislative frameworks. Young people often had to tell and re-tell their stories to meet different agency requirements, often very soon after arrival in Scotland, and in the absence of any established trust or relationships with professionals.

Child protection, trafficking and the NRM

The research identified that referrals to the NRM appear to take priority over a child protection referral, with inconsistent adherence to child protection procedures. There were also a number of unclear referrals to the NRM, where the information contained on referral forms did not match case records, indicating apparent misunderstanding of what constitutes trafficking among some professionals.


Longer-term outcomes, and future trajectories are difficult to assess. The young people identified for the case file analysis remain in contact with services although professionals still had anxieties surrounding the potential continued exploitation of some young people. In general, young people appeared to be settling well, engaged in education and/or employment and other support services. For many though, a sense of uncertainty about their futures remained as they awaited decisions about whether they would be able to stay in the UK.


There are a number of areas that require attention in order to better address the complexities of exploitation in Scotland and to ensure that children are identified and protected:

  • At present the NRM appears to take priority over a child protection referral. There is a need to ensure that a multi-agency child protection response takes priority above referral to the NRM.
  • There remains some confusion among professionals about what constitutes trafficking and what information is included on NRM referrals in relation to potential indicators of trafficking. Work is required to clarify which of the indicators relate to possible exploitation and which reflect movement and migration.
  • In Scotland, the majority of referrals to the NRM are for non-UK nationals. The identification and support of UK children as potential victims of trafficking requires attention; this may include additional training and awareness-raising for professionals.
  • There is confusion about what information about a child can be shared across agencies, and when. Clearer guidance is required for professionals in respect of what information must be shared with which agencies and for what purpose.
  • The experiences and complex background journeys of children need to be fully acknowledged in relation to concerns about the possibility of changing narratives and stories emerging as children are interviewed by different professionals. For those agencies providing support for children and young people in Scotland, issues of credibility and consistency of their stories should not become the prime focus for professionals. It is important that children and young people are given time to share their background stories as trusting relationships develop, while ensuring sufficient information is available to ensure their safety.
  • There is currently no single agency in Scotland that has an overview of concerns in relation to child trafficking. A central Scottish repository is required to collate information and to monitor prevalence and patterns relating to children exploited through trafficking. The information contained in this repository should be more comprehensive than information contained in current referrals to the NRM and the published statistics.



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