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 ethical and methodological challenges of researching human trafficking are well documented (Surtees and Craggs 2010; Siegel and de Wildt 2016). Human trafficking is a complex and concealed issue, raising problems for those seeking to identify and recover actual and potential victims, and those who seek to research its extent and nature. Previous research in Scotland has exemplified the challenges of conducting research (Cameron 2010; SCCYP 2011; Rigby 2009; Rigby et al 2010; 2012; Lebov 2010).

The present study set out to map the routes and circumstances of victims and to identify responses across the country using a mixed methodology of documentary analysis, case file analysis and interviews with a sample of professionals and young people. This proved problematic because of the limited information available in case files. As with any study, principles of informed consent, ensuring anonymity, and minimising potential risks and/or harms to participants underpinned all aspects of the work (Siegel and de Wildt 2016).[4] To ensure anonymity, certain information has been redacted.

An index time-period of referrals to the NRM was identified in order to access a sample of children and young people who had been identified as potential child trafficking victims for the case file analysis.[5]No further sampling was made in relation to competent authority[6] decisions as to whether the individuals sampled were victims of trafficking. This was an important aspect of the research as it allowed for commentary on the referral process.

Identifying where young people were located within Scotland for the index period was challenging. Even though young people were referred into the NRM, official statistics do not publish where the children reside, only First Responder details are published. This meant that unless local authorities were identified as a First Responder, geographical locations were not known.

The small number of identified children also meant that issues of anonymity and confidentiality were of paramount concern throughout. In line with the remit of the study, the case file data accessed related only to children and young people identified as potential victims of trafficking through an NRM referral. In this context, in the absence of any UK children identified for the case file analysis, the report largely relates to separated and unaccompanied children, all but one of whom were non-EU nationals.

A mixed method approach was adopted which involved collating case file information held by local authorities across Scotland. All Chief Social Work Officers for each local authority in Scotland were invited to participate in the study, initially by the Scottish Government Child Protection Team and with follow-up requests by the research team. Ongoing requests aimed at encouraging participation were circulated via Child Protection Committees.

Engagement of local authorities and the participation of other key agencies varied. One third of the local authorities in Scotland (n=11) agreed to initial requests to be involved in the research. Among those who declined to participate, some indicated they did not consider this was an area where they had information or knowledge to contribute, while many did not respond to repeated requests. Two local authority areas provided access to case file data and professionals from five local authority areas were subsequently interviewed.

Case file analysis

Case files are held by all agencies who have contact with unaccompanied children, in line with agency protocols in relation to child welfare and protection. There is guidance for the collection of data on human trafficking victims published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) (2009). The extent to which agencies across Scotland and the UK follow such guidelines is unknown.

From the identified sample time period, 41 cases were available for analysis. For four of these, available data was not sufficient to include in a full analysis beyond basic demographic information. The data on 28 cases was supplied by two local authority areas, with an additional 13 cases provided by the Scottish Guardianship Service. Data capture forms were developed using the International Organisation for Migration (2009) guidelines for data collection. They were developed in collaboration and consultation with the National Child Trafficking Strategy Group to capture background information, identification process and service delivery.

In one local authority area there was direct access to social work case records by a member of the research team who completed the data capture forms in collaboration with a senior social worker. In a second local authority area, a social worker completed the data capture forms. The Scottish Guardianship Service completed the remainder of the data capture forms. The amount of information available from the data capture forms was variable.[7]

In order to avoid potential identification of individual children, the information obtained from case files has been presented as aggregate data and, where necessary, some of the specific data has been redacted.The coherence of the data was variable. For example, for almost half of the young people information on home circumstances was not available, either because the young person did not disclose this information or they were not asked about home circumstances during interview.[8] Due to the variable nature and quality of the data it was only subject to basic analysis, providing simple summaries and percentage occurrences.

The data from the case files varied in consistency, with agencies occasionally recording different and contradictory records on the same young person. In a number of case records and NRM referrals, there were clear discrepancies in recorded information, highlighting its' potential unreliability in terms of accuracy. For example, some NRM referrals claimed exploitation as an indicator, however there was no evidence given in the accompanying notes to explain why exploitation was suspected. In other instances, the NRM referral forms differed in their 'indicators' of trafficking from accompanying case notes.

Professional interviews

Formal semi-structured interviews were conducted with 14 professionals including representatives of five local authority social work services, and specialist service providers.[9] Requests for interviews with a number of other key informants were unsuccessful. Border Force Scotland hosted a visit by a member of the research team to their Glasgow Airport base and provided the research team with an anonymised sample of case scenarios that had occurred during the index time- period.

Interviews with professionals explored issues of journeys and backgrounds, identification, responses to young people, and barriers and enablers to effective working. The professionals interviewed had varying levels of 'expertise' and experience in relation to child trafficking. While some could draw on direct work with children and young people identified as actual or potential victims of human trafficking, others had strategic or policy level experience. It was suggested by some participants, and reflected in interview responses, that "the local authorities outside Glasgow/Edinburgh are less experienced in working with trafficked children" (P3)[10] [see also Children's Commissioner Report, 2011].

Interviews with young people

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with five young people,[11] aged between 16 and 21 and previously identified as victims of trafficking (four males and one female) in order to explore their experiences of support in Scotland.[12] The voices of children and young people have rarely been heard in the trafficking literature, as access can be problematic and there is recognition that direct interviews may risk secondary trauma (Brennan 2005). Accordingly, during interviews, young people were asked about their experiences of services in Scotland, rather than focusing on their journeys and/or exploitation. All interviews were recorded (with permission) and responses were thematically coded using Braun and Clarke's (2012) technique for analysis and exploration.



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