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 issue of trafficking has received considerable attention from politicians, policy-makers, academics and practitioners for a number of years, with significant efforts being made at international, European and domestic levels to establish legal and policy frameworks capable of dealing with this complex and multi-faceted issue (Council of Europe 2005; EU Parliament 2011; Scottish Government 2015; HM Government 2018). Within this broader human trafficking framework, the Scottish Government (2013; 2014) has located child trafficking responses within the existing GIRFEC (Scottish Government 2018a) wellbeing policy framework, developing a multi-agency response to meet international obligations to child victims of trafficking. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act (2015) and accompanying Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy (Scottish Government 2017) has further developed international obligations around child trafficking and the need for child-specific responses. Section 4 of the strategy identified the need for Scotland-wide research to identify the presence of young people who have been trafficked and to establish their routes to arrival. This research was commissioned by the Scottish Government in order to fulfil this need.


Despite substantial international efforts to identify, conceptualise and legislate to combat trafficking in human beings, any clear understanding of what constitutes human trafficking, where it occurs, and how to address this issue remains the subject of much debate. Globally, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2018) estimates that 49 per cent of all identified victims are women, while 21 per cent are men, 23 per cent are girls and 7 per cent are boys, with trafficking for sexual exploitation the most commonly identified form of exploitation. However, the Global Report also identifies substantial gaps in knowledge and understanding. Within this complex debate there are also concerns about misrepresentation and the focus on a narrow representation of 'types' of human trafficking and victims (Gregoriou and Ras 2018) with wider forms of exploitation often overlooked (Malloch and Rigby, 2016).

In the UK, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) (see Glossary) is the principle means by which potential trafficking victims are 'officially' identified. It has been in operation since 2009 as the UK Government policy response to international guidance, obligating states to establish mechanisms for identifying potential victims. Annual statistics have been published by the National Crime Agency (NCA),[1] providing numbers of referrals and certain characteristics of those referred to the NRM. Between 2009 and 2018, 25,266 people have been referred into the NRM from across the UK as potential victims of human trafficking.

Child Trafficking

It is estimated that children account for just under a third of trafficking victims globally (UNODC 2018). Under international guidance and conventions, state parties are obliged to ensure that there are specific provisions in place for children due to their particular vulnerabilities (see EU Parliament 2011). Across the UK, children are referred into the NRM in a similar way to adults, albeit using a separate referral form. As human trafficking is a recognised child protection concern, children do not have to consent to a referral. The numbers of children referred to the NRM across the UK has risen annually since 2009 and, over the last two years, the numbers have increased dramatically (NCA 2019a). Much of this increase relates to referrals of UK national children in England, largely the result of identifying child sexual exploitation (CSE), 'county lines'[2] or child criminal exploitation concerns (see Jay 2014, Stone 2018; NCA 2017). Despite these developments, the implementation of child-specific practice in respect of child trafficking in the UK has been described as 'patchy' (Sereni and Baker 2018).

The official referral statistics are likely to be partial as not all victims of trafficking are identified as such, nor are all potential or actual victims referred to the NRM (Setter and Barker 2018). There has been substantial criticism of the implementation of the NRM in relation to children since its inception, not least that it has been too closely aligned with immigration processes and asylum decision-making (Annison 2013; Rigby and Ishola 2016; Setter and Baker 2018). The Home Office undertook a review of the system in order to address some of these concerns (Home Office 2014; 2017) and some changes in relation to decision-making were introduced in April 2019, including a move to the Home Office as the single competent authority.


In Scotland, a number of studies, reports and parliamentary enquiries have investigated the issue of human trafficking (Lebov 2010; Scottish Parliament 2010; EHRC Scotland 2011). None were able to provide a robust analysis of the extent of human trafficking, not least due to the relatively hidden nature of the crime and difficulty in identifying potential victims. Indeed, methodological issues in relation to the study of human trafficking have continually been cited as one of the reasons why there remains relatively little factual knowledge in this area (see Brennan 2005; Surtees and Craggs 2010).

The first concerns about child trafficking in Scotland arose in the mid-2000s, a decade after anxieties were raised in England (Hynes 2010; Rigby 2009). Initially the focus in Scotland was on the major urban areas, specifically Glasgow. A series of reports commissioned by the Glasgow Child Protection Committee were the first empirical studies to attempt to identify the extent of child trafficking amongst the unaccompanied asylum seeking children population, and identify responses to the issues (Rigby 2009; Rigby 2010; Rigby et al 2012). Rigby (2009) identified that, depending on the level of risk associated with indicators present in case files, between 21% and 40% of unaccompanied asylum seeking children had been exploited, either in the UK or on their journeys to the UK. Two subsequent studies looked at how professionals understood child trafficking in Glasgow (Cameron 2010), and prevalence across Scotland (SCCYP 2011). Both reports noted concerns around identification and the limited understanding of the issues in Scotland, reflecting UK-wide concerns about the challenges of recognising victims and highlighting that not all local authorities referred all children who were potential victims of human trafficking to the NRM (DfE / Home Office 2017). There has also been substantial concern expressed about the relationship between trafficking and different types of exploitation and the failure to adequately address this issue (Malloch and Rigby 2016).

While the Scottish studies noted above provided insights into child trafficking, and attempted to assess prevalence rates for Scotland, they were limited in their methodological scope. The major limitation of the Glasgow studies was their focus only on one city and on unaccompanied asylum seeking children. While the Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People (SCCYP) study conducted research across Scotland, it relied on practitioner understandings of trafficking and the NRM system, which was limited at the time. In this respect, the present study is unique in that it uses case file data from known child trafficking referrals, in conjunction with experienced professional insights. Most importantly, it is the first study of child trafficking in Scotland to hear directly from young people.[3]



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