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 prevalence of human trafficking (globally as well in the UK and Scotland) has been the subject of much debate and remains a contentious issue (UNODC 2018). While there have been improvements noted in recording and data collection through the NRM (Sereni and Baker 2018), there remains a lack of clarity about the extent to which NRM statistics reflect the number of people exploited through trafficking. Silverman (2013) suggests that those known to authorities and referred to the NRM may only represent 20-30% of the actual number of victims.

A Glasgow Child Protection Committee study also identified that child referrals to the NRM constituted about a third of known cases in the city (Rigby et al 2012). The Report of the Children's Commissioner for Scotland (SCCYP, 2011) suggested that a lack of awareness may have led to many possible cases of victims remaining unidentified. In the SCCYP report, there appeared to be a gap between the number of respondents who had expressed concern that a child may have been trafficked compared with the number of respondents who had reported making a referral, according to UK Border Agency statistics.

Table 1: Child NRM referrals - * figures for Scotland were only disaggregated from 2012 ( NCA 2018)
Year UK referrals Scottish referrals
2012* 310 29
2013 362 22
2014 671 25
2015 982 42
2016 1278 47
2017 2118 64
2018 3071 53
Total 8792 282

Scottish referrals account for approximately three per cent of total UK referrals. It is not clear from the available evidence if numbers of child victims of trafficking are significantly lower in Scotland, or if there is a failure to recognise or identify these young people.

This study cannot comment definitively on these wider questions. However, a number of interview participants expressed concern that the NRM process may not represent the true number of child trafficking victims in the UK. Other participants suggested that in Scotland it was possible that there was some conflation of trafficking and smuggling, thus potentially over or under-estimating the number of victims of human trafficking.

There is also a variable distribution of child trafficking referrals across Scotland. Eleven different local authority areas had made referrals to the NRM during the index time-period and were identified for the case file analysis. Two local authority areas accounted for nearly two thirds of all cases, with 46 per cent of cases in the largest local authority area. This disparity in terms of where children and young people are located is also apparent in relation to unaccompanied children. Across Scotland, it is estimated there are approximately 265 unaccompanied young people being 'looked after' by local authorities, with Glasgow City Council accommodating nearly two thirds of all Scottish arrivals over the last nine years (Rigby et al 2018).

Age when identified

Table 2: Ages of Children/young people at NRM referral recorded in case file data
Age Count (n 41)
14-15 years 15
16-17 years 26

All the children and young people referred to the NRM in the index time-period were aged 14-17 years old at the time of referral. However, there were indications that some of the young people had left their country of origin up to three years prior to their arrival in Scotland. While one of the professionals identified working with a pre-teen child, the ages identified reflect the age demographics of previous work on child trafficking in Scotland (Rigby 2009).

Age assessments were completed on seven children in the index time-period, two of whom were assessed as over 18 and were not included in this research.[13] Age assessments have been a concern in relation to unaccompanied children (see Crawley 2007), and the Scottish Government (2018) recently published updated guidance for practitioners. Rigby et al (2018) identified that age assessments were the most common assessment undertaken by local authorities, although one of the professional respondents indicated more recently they had "not been doing so many," (P9). There are indications the number of age assessments undertaken for trafficked children is reducing.


Table 3: Gender of NRM cases recorded in case file data
Gender Count (n 41)
Male 23
Female 16
Not known 1

While the majority of referrals from the Scottish sample were boys (56 per cent) there were some differences in the gender division depending on local authority area. In one local authority area, approximately 66 per cent of victims were girls; nearly 60 per cent of whom were recorded as being trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Such variations further complicate the task of profiling potential victims across Scotland.

Countries of origin

Since 2012, 282 children and young people from 33 countries have been referred to the NRM from Scotland. The largest numbers identified were from South East Asia, East Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, with Vietnamese nationals accounting for 53% of all those referred. This pattern of large numbers of trafficking victims from Vietnam has also been noticeable in the UK for several years (Silverstone and Brickell 2017; ECPAT 2019; NCA 2017; 2018; 2019).[14]

Table 4 presents publicly available statistics, published by the National Crime Agency. For the present research and case file analysis (table 5) individual countries (except Vietnam) have not been identified to prevent possible identification. Instead, geographical areas have been recorded.[15]

Table 4: Child referrals to NRM from Scotland 2012-2018 ( NCA 2018)
Country of origin Numbers Country of origin Numbers
Vietnam 137 Syria 2
China 29 Egypt 2
Nigeria 14 Ethiopia 2
Eritrea 11 Iraq 2
Sudan 10 Uganda 2
Romania 8 Lithuania 1
UK 9 Latvia 1
Slovakia 6 Sierra Leone 1
Somalia 5 Malawi 1
Bulgaria 5 Congo[16] 1
Albania 5 Ivory Coast 1
Iran 3 UK/Thailand 1
Pakistan 3 Tanzania 1
Afghanistan 3 Poland 1
Gambia 2 Jamaica 1
Zimbabwe 2 Chad 1
Table 5: Country/area of origin recorded in case file data
Country/area of origin Count (41)
Vietnam 25
Africa 7
East Asia 4
East Europe 3
Middle East 2

Across the UK as a whole, UK nationals accounted for the largest number of children referred to the NRM. This pattern has not been repeated in Scotland where UK nationals have never made up a substantial number of referrals. Between 2015 and 2018, 2478 UK children were referred to the NRM (the majority in relation to child sexual and criminal exploitation). In Scotland, for the corresponding timeframe, the number of UK children referred was 10.[17] Globally, most trafficking victims are detected in their countries of origin/citizenship (UNODC 2018), suggesting that the referral of mainly international cross-border cases may overlook the exploitation of UK national children as a trafficking concern in Scotland. Only one respondent from the professional interviews referred to the internal trafficking of Scottish children (P10).

There are currently no national statistics recording the extent of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Scotland. Furthermore, the extent to which UK/Scottish children may be victims of human trafficking within the country is unknown, nor is there any evidence on the extent to which CSE in Scotland is comparable to the rest of the UK. The CSE issue and its relationship with trafficking requires further investigation as it is a concern that has been noted for a number of years (Scottish Parliament 2014; Brodie and Pearce 2012). Similarly, emerging concerns across the UK around child criminal exploitation (Stones 2018; NCA 2017) have not been identified to any significant extent in Scotland.

Background circumstances

Unless stated otherwise, the case file data is based on 37 cases where information was available in addition to country of origin, age and gender.

Numerous antecedents have been identified as contributing to child trafficking, including poverty, gender inequality, family breakup, low levels of school enrolment, children without carers, absence of birth registrations, humanitarian and armed conflict, demand for exploitative sex and cheap labour (UNICEF 2005; Hynes 2015). While many complex social, economic and cultural factors may contribute to experiences of victimisation, identifying individual factors for each child is problematic as they may affect children differently in various social contexts (Kovacevic and Mirovic 2005; Rafferty 2007).

Taking the above into account, the present research attempted to identify background circumstances amongst the children and young people arriving in Scotland. As indicated, this was problematic as the amount of background information contained in case records was variable, an issue that has been identified as contributing to the difficulty of undertaking comprehensive assessments (Hynes 2010).

Additionally, it appears that the majority of the recorded information was elicited from the child or young person's account. While of prime importance, a child's account may not provide an accurate picture of background circumstances. Children and young people may be reluctant, for good reason, to disclose large amounts of information on their histories (Rigby and Whyte 2015), their recall may be affected by various circumstances (Samuelson 2011) and they may disclose different aspects of their stories to different professionals (Kohli 2006).

Hynes (2015) has also identified how broader demographic factors in relation to age, gender, culture and background are important in understanding trafficking experiences. The available information collated for this study indicates that while age (notwithstanding age assessments) and gender is recorded, the broader aspects of many young people's backgrounds are not. In 76% of case files extremely limited data was available on background circumstances, although information was available on living circumstances immediately prior to departure.

For just over half of the young people, educational provision prior to departure was not known, although it was possible to identify that a fifth had primary and secondary education, while two had not received any education at all.The limited background information available means that a comprehensive understanding of upbringing, education and social circumstances of children identified as trafficked in Scotland remains elusive.[18]

Table 6: Country of origin living circumstances prior to departure recorded in case file data
Living circumstances (country of origin) Count (37)
Living with parents 13
Living with relatives 9
Living with friends / carers 2
Living on streets 5
No data 8

As a result of unknown or unrecorded information, a number of years after arrival there remain substantial gaps in understanding the background of children and young people arriving in Scotland who have been exploited through trafficking, as shown in table 6. Given the disparity of information available, legitimate concerns exist in relation to what systematic and reliable information is recorded, or indeed if any of the information is systematic and reliable (Godziak and Bump 2008). This represents a challenge for early identification, assessment, decision-making, support and future planning; which is particularly problematic in terms of contextual information for 'my world'[19] assessments in line with GIRFEC (Scottish Government 2018a). However, the data that is available on children's personal situations prior to leaving their countries of origin, indicates there are substantial variations in their background circumstances, further complicating attempts to profile victims.

Case study: Vietnam

For several years there has been rising concern about the trafficking of Vietnamese citizens to the UK (Silverstone and Brickell 2017; ECPAT 2019). In line with UK-wide experience, the index period for this study identified Vietnam as the largest single source country for potential child trafficking victims identified in Scotland, although Vietnam has not always been the largest single source country (Home Office 2010). Despite the well-documented experiences of Vietnamese nationals (Silverstone and Brickell 2017; ECPAT 2019) and increasing knowledge of their experiences, professionals in Scotland remain concerned that "we're just scratching the surface with that. I mean that's a real difficult one to grasp exactly what's going on there." (P2)

Research participants supported the evidence that exploitation was experienced during journeys and that common routes were through China, Russia, Eastern Europe, France (Silverstone and Brickell, 2017 and ECPAT, 2019):

"They [Vietnamese children] travel very often…through Russia, where they work in different garment factories, or have different kinds of negative experiences. Like different experiences of exploitation, essentially in Russia and through Europe and into France, where I think a lot of them are very aware that they're in the Jungle [Calais refugee and migrant encampment] trying to cross to the UK." (P1)

"Trafficked from Vietnam to China, they might work in China doing different sort of menial jobs, different tasks, rubbish collection, recycling, then they might be transported either over land so through Russia, in through the Ukraine and Germany, it could be Belgium, Holland, in lorries and trucks in different ways." (P3)

While there are some consistencies with the journey and route of Vietnamese nationals, there is no clear pattern for all individuals according to case file accounts of journeys and professional experiences. Planes, trains, trucks, cars and walking were all modes of transport recorded for the children in this study, although entry into Scotland was largely via lorries and cars.

More than any other nationality, professional respondents suspected that Vietnamese young people had been "given" a story which they "stick quite solidly to". Some of the Vietnamese young people who had been granted refugee status returned to work in nail bars leading to concerns, among some research participants, of ongoing exploitation.

"We certainly hope that it [exploitation] has ended but you're never really sure to be honest and then a lot of Vietnamese young people after they have status are quite keen to go back and work in nail bars for example. So it's trying to figure out why."

It was suggested by professionals that "traffickers have manufactured the scenario of the Vietnamese" (P2). That is, they believed that some young Vietnamese people were told by traffickers to make themselves known to the authorities as trafficking victims and to seek asylum in order to get into the care system. This, according to some professionals, potentially placed the young people in the care of the local authority, while traffickers were able to continue to exploit them, without incurring costs of food and accommodation.

For many professionals in Scotland, Vietnamese arrivals were considered likely to be victims of trafficking: "I think they do appear to put them [NRM Referrals] in for any Vietnamese child that presents. I think that's well publicised in Scotland as being an indicator, it's enough to be a Vietnamese child alone." (P1)

There did not appear to be many consistent factors in the backgrounds of the young Vietnamese people arriving in Scotland. The aspect that was relatively consistent was journeys through China, Russia and Europe before arrival in Scotland, journeys that were long and arduous (ECPAT 2019).

Another consistent aspect for the Vietnamese young people was the type of exploitation. All but three of the recorded instances of labour exploitation involved Vietnamese nationals, and all the recorded cannabis cultivation exploitation involved Vietnamese young people. These patterns of exploitation were similar to other research (ECPAT 2019; Silverman and Brickell 2017) which identified some of the pull factors for Vietnamese nationals such as friends or family members already resident in the UK, established smuggling routes and agents, and opportunities to earn money in the UK. Scottish professionals in this study were not, however, able to clearly identify any patterns of entry.

The case file data also suggested that, where organised crime had been identified as a concern in Scotland, two thirds of these cases involved Vietnamese nationals. However, the nature and extent of this organised crime was unclear from the case file data. This may also link to the findings from the case file data that Vietnamese nationals were more likely to have been exploited in multiple countries, suggesting re-trafficking and continued movement.

Overall, while there were clear concerns about Vietnamese nationals, very little was known about their context and circumstances, despite the relatively high numbers of young Vietnamese people in Scotland who had been identified as victims of trafficking. While professionals continue to have concerns, the issues remain shrouded in confusion and uncertainty and there remains limited understanding of the trafficking of Vietnamese nationals (ECPAT 2019):

"What they [official publications] were saying about the Vietnamese in terms of trafficking, it's like I kind of agree with that, but it's not really taking me further forward in what I understand. And I don't feel like I really understand what's going on in terms of how kids are getting trafficked from Vietnam to Scotland." (P1)


The physical and geographical journeys of the children and young people from countries of origin to Scotland were varied. While some were long and arduous (even for those who did not disclose en-route abuse and exploitation), others were very quick. For some children (54 per cent), their experiences of abuse and exploitation commenced prior to leaving their countries of origin. Forty-three per cent of the young people identified were en-route from their countries of origin to Scotland for over a year, and in a small number of cases (n=5) the journey to Scotland took over two years. During this time young people experienced multiple abuses on their journey as they travelled by car, lorry, plane, boat and on foot.

Table 7: Journey time on route to Scotland in case file data (count 41)
Journey time Less than 1 week 2 weeks to 1 month 2-3 months 4-6 Months 7-12 months 1 year+ Not known
1 4 5 2 4 16 9

For some of the young people who arrived in Scotland, their experiences were similar to the increased cross-Mediterranean and European journeys reported widely in the press since 2014/2015 (Malloch and Rigby 2016), for example, spending time in transit camps in Europe. The experiences of the young people were supported by some of the professionals who recognised this route:

"They're coming through Libya, and they're coming through that place where they just kind of treat everybody that comes in there…as kind of…like animals. They're used…They're getting fed and getting somewhere to sleep, maybe in a barn, or in a kitchen, but they're getting made to work on a farm for a couple of months and hard labour." (P4)

Records of journeys suggest numerous modes of transport were used across many countries, with no one mode preferred over another. The journeys themselves were often dangerous and hazardous; with descriptions of transfers and changes of transport in forests and across borders, interspersed with experiences of imprisonment in transit accommodation, warehouses and containers. The geographical locations and transfers were also difficult to discern, as the children and young people had no understanding of where they were, and often only had a limited sense of the time some of the journeys had taken.

To supplement the case file information, professionals were able to illuminate some of the specifics from the children's experiences, although patterns remain difficult to identify:

"Journeys clearly vary depending on where they come from; some nationalities there are similarities in accounts – Vietnamese in particular where their journeys are into Europe then the UK, share a very similar narrative. And there are others where it varies to each individual." (P6)

Understandably, professionals were hesitant to comment on specific routes, with the exception of those of Vietnamese children (see Case Study on Vietnam), and instead provided broad overviews of geographical journeys. Overall, professionals highlighted that even when working with children who were victims of human trafficking, it was difficult to provide a clear idea of journeys and routes to arrival in Scotland, partly because there are many unknowns, but also because of the variation in travel. Additionally, professionals indicated that accounts might not be factually 'true' (for example, where traffickers might have imposed an account of the journey on the child, or because of gaps in the child's knowledge).

"We've seen patterns change over the years…finding out that often what they were telling us about the last part of their journey wasn't true – found out from discussions with police. That doesn't mean the rest of what they were telling us wasn't true. The bits they were telling us about journeys…were true, the abuse they were telling us about…some of them had definitely experienced abuse on the way, sexual assault, forced to work and there is no doubt that was true." (P8)

Despite some variability over time in the stories told, research participants were keen to highlight that inconsistencies and different stories should not be viewed as intentional manipulation by children and young people.[20] Rather, sharing accurate information of journeys can be a real challenge, even after practitioners have developed good working relationships and trust. In effect, it was often suggested young people "have no way of knowing how they've got here, and they just don't know, or they're not willing to share, or able to share." (P10)

Many professional participants commented on the journey into and through the UK being a very unclear part of the story. For example, while British Transport Police (responsible for railways) was a recorded First Responder on four occasions, only one of the young people appeared to enter Scotland by train. This suggests three of the referrals from British Transport Police were for children who went to a train station after arriving via other means of transport. Arrival in Scotland was not a simple recollection for most children and young people. Case file data, and the majority of professionals, suggested that most young people came via England, often finishing their journeys in cars or lorries:

"The story about how they kind of get from England and end up in Scotland is a bit hazy but I can only understand that that's just the way the traffickers are working and controlling them and there's some way of masterminding that. But I don't understand it, and then ending up…actively presenting themselves [to local authorities and the police]." (P1)

While most professionals highlighted that young people usually arrived via other areas of the UK and travelled by road - "Most often they seem to have come by truck" (P9) - the possibility of other routes was also mentioned. In this context, travel through Ireland was indicated as a possibility, and there was also a suggestion by one professional that:

"Although we were getting told they were coming in via England it makes no sense, if they were going to present why not so do in the south east of England? I believe they were coming in much closer to Edinburgh, I think there was a local link and Rosyth makes sense, shown by the numbers stopping when that [Rosyth ferry connection] stopped. In the case of children coming into Glasgow, I would look at sea ports in and around Glasgow. Some arrive off lorries, lots of different ways." (P8)

While the case file data indicated that arrival by lorry was the single most common type of entry to Scotland (30% of young people), more consideration may need to be given to where they entered, not least because young people hidden in lorries may not necessarily know which port they arrive at. Despite much uncertainty regarding arrival in Scotland, it does seem that direct flights only account for 10% (n=4) of arrivals. Ultimately, professionals acknowledged that the journeys children had taken before arrival in Scotland was simply not known.

Types of exploitation

Table 8: Types of exploitation identified in Scotland 2012-2016 ( NCA 2018)
Type of Exploitation Number
Labour 119
Sexual 42
Domestic servitude 22
Unknown 52

According to NRM statistics from 2012–2018, the most common type of exploitation identified for children referred from Scotland was labour exploitation. The NCA statistics have for several years recorded referrals by one of three main types of exploitation – labour, sexual, domestic servitude – and unknown exploitation. However, in line with other empirical studies, the present study identified that individual children were often exploited in several different ways and that focusing on one main type of exploitation overlooked the complex nature of their exploitative experiences (Rigby 2009).

Table 9: Types of exploitation recorded in case file data
Exploitation type Labour Sexual Domestic servitude Cannabis cultivation Drug courier Multiple N/K
Count (37) 16 10 6 10 2 9 3

Taking into account the limited information about background circumstances, the case files and NRM forms indicated that for half the young people, their experiences of exploitation and abuse began in their countries of origin. This exploitation and abuse constituted the start of exploitation through trafficking; for example, being made to transport drugs within a country to pay off debts or experiences of commercial sexual exploitation. There were also instances of domestic work in countries of origin, although whether 'domestic work' constitutes potential trafficking or exploitation in some countries is a debatable point (see Howard 2017; Hynes 2015).

At least a quarter of the young people had experienced multiple abuses at various points on their journeys and in transit countries. The case file data suggested that nearly 68% of the young people experienced abuse and exploitation once in the UK, and 54% experienced exploitation in Scotland. It remains the case that the fluid nature of abusive situations, and the vulnerability of children and young people on the move, may expose them to multiple exploitative scenarios (Rigby 2009). Additionally, the multiple types of exploitation identified suggest that identifying one main type of exploitation may minimise the totality of the experiences of children and young people.

Table 10: Coercion and control techniques recorded in case file data
Control Threats/ psychological violence Physical Violence Sexual Violence Debt bondage Denied food
Count (n=37) 26 21 6 13 4

In addition to the types of exploitation recorded, three quarters of the young people also experienced multiple types of coercion and control, including physical and/or sexual violence, as well as threats of violence. Physical abuse as a part of the trafficking experience is rarely referred to as a major concern, but it can have a significant impact on children's psychological wellbeing (Ottisova et al 2018). While coercion and control is not a requirement for identification of child trafficking, these figures indicate the experience of substantial violence in addition to specific exploitation categories.

Several professionals also explained that young people who had been trafficked were particularly at risk of further exploitation because "the link between the traffickers and traffickees, it's sometimes hard to…know for sure if the link has been cut" (P3). Some respondents commented that they suspected exploitation was ongoing in Scotland, even for those children and young people identified and supported by services:

"It's almost as if they bring somebody in and leave them in Glasgow and say 'we'll be back to see you in three years. You just do what you're doing, tell this…this is a good story, get your status, then we'll come back and…then we'll tie into you again'." (P4)

"If a child comes here and they are found working in a nail bar or working in a cannabis farm, or anything, then the child is met by social work and accommodated by social work and then…children are…looked after and then they make a positive decision on their refugee status, and a positive conclusive grounds decision. But then knowing to what extent are the traffickers still somewhere in the background is really hard to know for sure." (P3)

Details on how exactly the children escaped from/exited their exploitation were not clear. Often the children's narratives suggested they were helped by somebody who was involved in their exploitation. There were also indications that children and young people took opportunities to escape from buildings where they were being held and, after meeting people in the street, were referred to appropriate services.

Young people were found in bus and railway stations, at airports, on the street, presenting at police stations, presenting at social work offices, and in places of potential exploitation, the most common being nail bars (n=6). Again, clear patterns and common experiences were difficult to discern.

Despite the abusive and exploitative experiences associated with child trafficking, referrals were not always initially made to Police Scotland or social work services, instead referrals sometimes went directly to the NRM. This contradicts Scottish guidance which indicates social work or Police Scotland should make referrals to the NRM, following child protection investigations (Scottish Government 2013).

Indicators of trafficking and the National Referral Mechanism

"I think sometimes, to me, someone arriving on a lorry is not necessarily an indicator that they've been trafficked, because that's how most people enter the country and the difference between a smuggler and a trafficker is quite…a fine line." (P5)

The National Referral Mechanism is the principle means by which potential trafficking victims are 'officially' identified across the UK. Within the process of referral to the NRM, 'indicators of trafficking' constitute a pivotal role in the initial identification, or highlighting of concerns. In the referral forms included in this study (n=15) these indicators were recorded on the 'indicator matrix'. The indicators provide a brief overview as to why the referrer considers the child or young person to be a victim of trafficking. The indicators in use across the UK mirror those highlighted in international texts and trafficking practice handbooks (IOM 2009; UNODC 2018). They also reflect many of the indicators used in identification of child sexual exploitation (Hynes 2015).

Although only a small number of NRM forms were accessed, an overview of their content, along with the accompanying indicator matrix, provides additional insight into factors that professionals used to make initial identifications of child trafficking. However, it should be noted that the use of indicators, as part of an identification and assessment process, has been criticised.

There is limited understanding of how indicators can support an ongoing assessment process, how they combine with background and social circumstances to aid assessments, or how they predict future risk and help determine which services may best meet children's needs (Rigby 2011). Used alone as an assessment, as it is in many cases (Fairfax and Rigby 2011), the matrix does not provide a chronicle of events that supports wider understanding of children's circumstances (Rigby and Whyte 2015).

Analysis of the NRM forms indicates that written submissions do not always correspond with wider agency recordings and narratives, as one professional commented:

"… Probably different professionals have part of the picture. So I might know part of the picture, it might be a social worker knows something, a guardian knows something, a solicitor knows something, the police know something…" (P3)

In just over a quarter (4/15) of the NRM forms from the case file data, there was no clear evidence for exploitation, and some inconsistency between the information contained in the forms and that contained in case records. One of these cases received a positive conclusive grounds decision,[21] suggesting that competent authorities may have had access to additional information that was not available to support services. While cases of trafficking may not all be identified (Setter and Baker 2018; SCCYP 2011), there was evidence of referrals to the NRM where it was difficult to ascertain the exploitation which formed the basis of referral.

One experienced professional respondent noted that their service had seen NRMs completed that certainly did not constitute human trafficking. Overall, the majority of indicators recorded on the 15 NRM forms analysed in this study were actually markers of movement and illegal entry into the UK, rather than of exploitation. This has implications for future training and identification, as it appears that first responders are focusing on easily identifiable factors, rather than the complexities of exploitation. This reliability of indicators as a marker of exploitation requires further exploration, with concerns similar to those in relation to child sexual exploitation (see Brown et al 2016).

One of the reasons for the inconsistent use of the indicator matrix and information presented may be the process for submitting a referral. Scottish Government policy indicates NRM forms should be submitted following initial discussions between social work services and Police Scotland, and preferably after an initial referral discussion or case conference (Scottish Government 2013). Data from the case file analysis indicated single agency first responder referrals were often made shortly after initial contact, potentially bypassing the primacy of a child protection referral.

NRM decisions

Data from the National Crime Agency[22] indicated that 78 per cent of the NRM referrals for the index time-period received a 'conclusive grounds' decision, with 63 per cent of all referrals receiving 'positive conclusive' grounds. The decision information contained in the files of Scottish agencies was not as accurate and up to date as the data provided by the NCA.

In terms of timescales, where this data was available, agency files indicated that for those young people who had received a conclusive decision, the time-period for decision-making for the majority of young people was three to five months. Seven young people waited over six months and three waited over a year and half.All but one of the competent authority case file decisions (an EU citizen) were made by the Home Office.[23] There is no indication that child welfare, protection and support provision was not in place during the decision-making timeframe, although professionals expressed concern about the time taken to make a determination about trafficking:

"I know we have cases going back one, two years for trafficking, so I think the delays are quite a difficult thing to sometimes understand…I've got a young person that's going to get a conclusive grounds decision very soon and has been in the UK for… maybe 2 years. And just that uncertainty and not knowing I think is very bad for their mental health, very bad for their wellbeing overall." (P3)

Perceptions of the NRM

There was widespread negativity amongst professionals about the NRM as a system of identification and support for child victims of trafficking.[24] While they understood its purpose, they tended to view it as a barrier to providing effective support for children, believing there was limited benefit to children and young people:

"I don't see what a young person is getting from going through that process apart from a piece of paper to say yes you're a victim of trafficking, which they already know they are anyway." (P5)

"It's very much a bureaucratic system, it's not set up for…meeting the interests of children, it's set up…more for statistics to be honest with you, so they can record how many children have been trafficked. I just find the system really flawed because it doesn't really offer children anything." (P2)

Most professional respondents viewed the NRM as unnecessary, and indicated that it was not beneficial to the child, taking into account the amount of time it could take to reach a decision and the potential for additional interviews and questions about their experiences. As one professional stated: "the benefit for the child I don't think is proportionate to what they have to go through." (P3)

There was a suggestion from some professionals that NRM referrals took priority over child protection-informed responses. As indicated the case file data also supported this assertion, as most NRM referrals took place before child protection meetings, in contravention of Scottish policy (Scottish Government 2013).

"My impression of the NRM is that we do it too quickly…and it tends to be the police that do it…whereas it would be better to bring it to a case discussion where you've got the relevant agencies round the table." (P10)

While expressing concerns about the NRM process for children, professionals also provided possible solutions to address problems with the system. These most often coalesced around ensuring initial identification and decision-making took place with the existing child protection framework, with a child protection case conference making the decisions:

"We don't see why…a multi-agency child protection meeting can't make that decision about whether somebody has been trafficked or not, and then just [notify] Home Office…and then they deal with the immigration side of it…They do a similar thing for age assessment; social workers conduct age assessments and then communicate to the Home Office their decision." (P2)

"A lot of the work around the NRM, trying to make the NRM more child-centred, a lot of the stuff around…child trafficking should be very much viewed as child protection, a form of child abuse and do we really need an NRM when we already have comprehensive structures?" (P6)

Calls for a more child protection-focused response to child trafficking have been made across the UK for a number of years, not least because of the perceived focus on immigration when decisions are made by the Home Office as to whether a child is a victim of trafficking (see Rigby et al 2014; Rigby and Ishola 2016; ATMG 2014; Harvey et al, 2015; Gearon 2018). Recent changes to the decision-making process may allay some of these concerns, however further work will be required to monitor this.

Multi-agency work

There is a substantial focus on the importance of multi-agency working in literature and policy on child trafficking (see Harvey et al 2015;Scottish Government 2017). Scottish policy and strategy was recognised by Sereni and Baker (2018) as progressive in its focus on the centrality of a child protection and multi-agency response. Similarly, professionals in the present study were generally positive about their experiences of collaboration and acknowledged the support of the Scottish Government in developing a child-centred approach:

"I feel quite hopeful about the future…and I think people get it, there is a consensus in Scotland. I think that some of the issues that are reserved to Westminster… immigration, impact negatively on some of that." (P6)

Despite this generally positive outlook, professionals were concerned that outside the larger urban areas of the central belt of Scotland, "the local approach is a bit patchy, and knowledge about the national policy and guidance is patchy" (P6). A respondent from a rural area acknowledged that "there was very limited information…I felt I was floundering about in the dark about how best to support [child]." (P12)

Gaps in multi-agency working were also evident in relation to the NRM, where single agency referrals were submitted without consultation between agencies:

"I don't think multi-agency working is happening when it comes to the NRM. I don't think you've got everyone around that young person around the table communicating clearly." (P5)

At the child protection interface, joint interviews between police and social work did not always occur as set out in the guidance. Respondents noted that, on occasion, police officers would visit children's units to interview a young person without liaising with social work services to arrange a joint interview.

"There's police interviewing kids without social work involved. There's police turn up and do random additional interviews, with no notice to the child, just lots of practice that shouldn't happen." (P2)

The study highlights some inconsistencies, reflecting the concentration and location of services and experience in the central belt compared to other areas. For children arriving in Scotland, once referred through the NRM process, multi-agency responses clearly formed the basis of intervention, reflecting the internationally recognised need for collaboration when working with children who had been trafficked. The case file analysis indicated that all of the children and young people in this study had social work and police involvement (although not necessarily in a formal child protection process), with the majority also involved with the Scottish Guardianship Service. Education and health services were involved with over half the children beyond screening assessments, while a third of the young people were in contact with mental health services.

In relation to immigration issues, all young people were linked to the Home Office, although only half the case records indicated contact with legal services in relation to this.[25] Young people identified that professionals who gave them time and developed relationships were the most useful and supportive in a multi-agency context. This is an important consideration for future developments and an area discussed further in the young people's section below.

An area of multi-agency working that was more problematic was sharing information across agencies, though all professionals recognised there was excellent practice when it worked well. There were some contradictions in experiences with some professionals not reporting problems with information sharing, while others explained that it could be challenging:

"There's certain information that you can't share, there's certain information that you don't need to share. But I think…especially with trafficking…if everybody is sharing bits of the puzzle you start to get a clearer picture…And if you've not got that information shared then…your jigsaw just becomes useless." (P4)

Participants explained some of the inconsistencies and lack of clarity around information-sharing protocols and procedures, by reference to the different processes in place. As one professional commented: "I think that's where the barrier is…these different pressures and different agendas" (P5). For example, it was unclear to what extent the contents of a child protection joint investigative interview could be shared with the Home Office to help make decisions in relation to trafficking. In this respect, the case file data, and professional responses, also indicated that not all agencies had the same information and that some had only part of the children's narrative:

"I sometimes struggle to see how it works to be honest and why sometimes it's shared, why at other times it's not shared…Why it [information] can sometimesappear in an asylum decision, you told the police this on one day, and other times it's not shared at all." (P3)

Concerns about information sharing were notable in relation to the NRM referral form and the potential impact on an asylum decision. Professionals were concerned that contradictory information contained in child protection interviews and asylum interviews may be used inappropriately in decision-making or to challenge the consistency and credibility of narratives:

"How much information do we share, what's useful, what's not useful?…we're actually currently reflecting on are we providing too much information at the start of the process." (P6)

Professional concerns about the information provided in the NRM referral form were supported by the analysis of the NRM forms which suggested a great deal of the information included was not relevant to a determination of exploitation. For example, details of background circumstances and journeys were prioritised rather than a focus on the actual abuse and exploitation. Overall, there were sufficient concerns expressed about what information was shared, and for what purpose, to require further investigation and to evidence the need for clear guidance to be provided for professionals.

System trauma

"We know that actually quite a lot of the damage that's being done is through the processes. It's like I see young people's mental health deteriorate and a lot of it is not through the experiences they've had, it's actually…a lot to do with it being exasperated by this process." (P2)

"It's frightening for people and I don't think that's fully understood just how intimidating and frightening it is." (P6)

Professionals considered that the confusing landscape and multiple processes could result in 'system trauma' for young people. System trauma refers to the additional trauma for young people caused by the pressures of the various systems and processes they are required to navigate. For professionals, this was pertinent as many victims had already experienced differing levels of trauma. One professional commented on the difficulty this presents in building relationships with the young people: "dealing with children who are very, very traumatised…it's really difficult to get that trust and not knowing the backgrounds…[and]…previous relationships." (P9)

"There's lots of these processes – there's the CP [child protection] process, there's the NRM process, there is the asylum process,…it's just process after process after process, it's just bureaucracy after bureaucracy after bureaucracy, and there must be a better way to do it." (P6)

While professionals acknowledged the potential trauma of trafficking experiences, they, along with young people, also expressed concern about trauma of navigating multiple systems and sharing stories, even when relationships had developed. As one professional explained in relation to a young person:

"He started talking about his journey and then he started talking about going through certain countries, what happened to him, and he really struggled with it. And the lawyer I'm working with is very good, very child friendly, but the next night I met him [young person],…and I said to him "how are you feeling? How's things and all that? How are you getting on?" And he just turned around and went "I had a terrible night last night. I never slept". I said "Is that because you were talking about all that stuff at the lawyers?" (P4)

Professionals acknowledged the importance of building relationships with the young people. However, they felt that this was challenged by the need to meet the requirements of different bureaucratic processes, which had timescales that appeared 'rushed' to both professionals and the young people.

While young people expressed concern about the constant telling and re-telling of their stories, professionals were also acutely aware of the potential for the systems - child protection, criminal justice, trafficking and immigration – to be a source of trauma for the children who had to contend with them:

"in this whole issue of trafficking, there are so many professionals and so many completely overstretched professionals…struggling for resources, there's a chance that kids just get processed and the relationships fall out of all of it." (P1)

Narrating Journeys: Issues of credibility and consistency

Professionals and young people expressed concern about the pressures to get the narrative of the journey and background circumstances 'right' for asylum and immigration claims, in addition to welfare and protection issues ('right' relating to no inconsistencies and with as much accuracy as possible).

This was evident from the case file information that highlighted inconsistencies between data sources, both in content and recording mechanisms, and from interview respondents who recognised the problems in telling the same complex story multiple times. Professionals and young people consistently stressed that the way in which children and young people were required to tell their story many times to evidence trafficking, smuggling, or support asylum claims, at a very early point of contact, was highly problematic.

It was suggested that young people often found themselves under-going multiple interviews at an early stage in the process when they were not clear of the roles of police, social work and other professionals, and were unlikely to trust any of the professionals. The speed of the processes, and the subsequent decisions, was viewed as particularly problematic when sharing experiences:

"I think the thing that can be frustrating sometimes for me is a young person will come into the country and then within 2-3 days…even sometimes sooner, they're in a police office. They're in a police station with a social worker getting bombarded with questions." (P4)

"If all of those things happen quite quickly after the young person has presented to the authorities, it then down the line has this massive impact on their trafficking decision and their asylum decision." (P5)

Some young people explained that having to tell their story many times, to different professionals was a source of distress and was unhelpful.[26] Professionals were especially concerned that information gathered for child protection purposes, NRM referrals and asylum claims was often used to contest claims, calling into question the credibility of children and young people. Professionals were uneasy about the fact that in sharing their stories, young people were providing statements which would subsequently be used to support or contest claims for asylum:

"Within the guidance it states…a child shouldn't really need to be interviewed… for them to make a decision on trafficking and yet they sneak it into the asylum interview." (P2)

Information recorded at a young person's initial contact point with services subsequently had to be verified or defended at a later stage in the process. There were concerns that as relationships developed between young people and professionals, more information was disclosed, some of which may contradict earlier statements and raise questions about the credibility of young people's narratives. Professionals were also clear that young people were reluctant to disclose a coherent narrative too early:

"It was really difficult…she was very guarded…it took a very long time, she almost drip fed us." (P12)

"You know we've seen so many examples of young people who don't disclose exploitation until months down the line and then it's…through probably building a relationship, a trust, and working with them closely." (P2)

These comments relate to the fact that children who have been abused or exploited may not disclose this to the first person, or professional, they speak to. The building of relationships is key to supporting children to share their stories. While it was recognised that the disclosure of information and the building of a narrative took time and was very much a process, the actual formal recording of information (the 'story') was often presented as 'static'.

While it was recognised that children's stories could change as relationships were established and strengthened after they were formally recorded on the system, this was also viewed as problematic. Professionals commented that when stories changed, young peoples credibility was questioned in the asylum process. Professionals were concerned that when the focus of interviews was on getting the 'story' correct, identifying ongoing support needs was often missed.

In terms of narrating stories, professionals referred to the importance of accurate translation services and how this could create problems with the narration and recording. Concerns were highlighted over the use of interpreters who were not always accurate in their translation of a young person's story. This is an issue that again could have significant influence on subsequent decision-making processes and the credibility of a young person's narrative. Accurate interpretation of a young person's account of events was felt to be crucial both in identifying the young person as a victim of exploitation and also in supporting claims for asylum:

"I think the child should have an opportunity to look at that [interpreted account] and see that they're happy…because we've had cases where…the interpreter has been really poor in interpreting and they've said like lots of things that…were not accurate." (P2)

Overcoming the challenges of supporting young people to share their stories in a safe and supportive environment are key to the subsequent decision-making processes and identification of appropriate services. Obtaining information quickly to safeguard children and young people needs to be balanced against potential questions regarding credibility and consistency later, in both the protection and immigration systems.

Child protection and support services

Child exploitation and trafficking is a child protection issue and Scottish guidance and policy is clear that a child protection response should be paramount (Scottish Government 2013; 2014; 2015). However, previous research has highlighted some of the challenges associated with prioritising child protection in this context.

The SCCYP Report (2011) indicated some divergence of opinion as to the expediency of the child protection system in meeting the needs of trafficked children, as a result of competing priorities (gathering evidence to support prosecution, issues of asylum and migration status). Professional respondents indicated that effective child protection procedures required appropriate resources and efficient information sharing and understanding between agencies. Central to this was the opportunity for the young person to disclose necessary information and to change it later. This is especially important in the context of the preceding points made about credibility and how information is shared.

While the point has been made above about many of the interviews and processes being undertaken too quickly after identification, the necessity of timeous action where there may be child protection concerns, and risk of significant harm, is paramount. Scottish guidance is clear about the roles of all relevant agencies in making decisions, and that social work services and police have a statutory role in deciding whether a full child protection investigation should take place (Scottish Government 2014). In relation to child trafficking, the roles of police and social work as First Responders are also clear (Scottish Government 2013). However, even in the context of actions to reduce risk and harm, the speed and immediacy of interviews can remain daunting for young people.

The case file analysis identified that 62 per cent of young people had their cases investigated and/or dealt with by at least one aspect of the child protection process (initial referral discussion, case conference, joint investigative interview). However, there were inconsistencies in the child protection responses across local authority areas. A joint investigative interview was recorded for two young people.

Given that "the purpose of joint investigations is to establish the facts regarding a potential crime or offence against a child, and to gather and share information to inform the assessment of risk and need for that child, and the need for any protective action" (Scottish Government 2014: 89), two instances of joint interviews where child trafficking was concerned appears low. For 30 per cent of the children and young people there was no recorded evidence of a recognised child protection response.

Only eight children had been placed on the child protection register (or equivalent), although it appears that some children went straight to looked after and accommodated status. In respect of housing, most children (n=24) were accommodated initially in residential units and occasionally in bed and breakfast accommodation (n=4) for those aged over 16. One young person was initially accommodated with foster carers.[27]

While it was not possible to ascertain whether comprehensive child protection investigation and processes were required for all children, there did appear to be substantial inconsistency in implementing policy. For a number of young people, exploitation occurred outside Scotland, which may also explain why child protection processes were not always fully implemented. Additionally, limited numbers of child protection registrations could also be due to assessments of no risk of further and ongoing significant harm, however, this was not possible to discern from the limited information available to the researchers.

The inconsistency in child protection processes was also noted by professional respondents:

"It's not always very consistent. Some young people I work with…are interviewed by the police immediately based upon information passed by social work to thepolice,…I can think of some, that have never been interviewed by the police." (P3)

Despite inconsistencies in the child protection response, professional participants were vocal in the belief that child trafficking was a child protection issue and should sit within the wider child protection framework:

"The discourse about child trafficking should be very much viewed as child protection, a form of child abuse and do we really need an NRM when we already have comprehensive structures." (P6)

"What's best practice? Getting it [identification] embedded in Child Protection." (P2)

However, in terms of process, any move to embed identification and support firmly in the child protection system needs to ensure that this system is also responding appropriately. Currently, as indicated by the case file data, it appears that the child protection system is considered secondary to the need to refer into the NRM as quickly as possible. And, there is evidence across the UK that the safeguarding and protection systems do not always respond well to children and young people exploited through trafficking (Harvey et al 2015; Gearon 2018).

Post-identification support

The case file data indicates that children and young people received substantial support from numerous services, and that the young people themselves were appreciative of the support they had received in Scotland. The Scottish Guardianship Service, social work and counselling provision were most often mentioned by young people. Contact with the Home Office and legal services in relation to immigration issues was clear in half of the case files. Given that all except one of the young people included in the case file sample were non-EU nationals, this relatively low figure may be a recording issue.

Seventy per cent of the young people were engaged at various times with secondary and tertiary education. Longer-term engagement with education was more apparent for those young people receiving positive asylum decisions.

Case records indicated that 58 per cent of young people had been in contact with health services beyond initial screening, with 35 per cent of children and young people in contact with psychological provision.While professionals and young people recognisedmental health as a challenge, there was one particularly interesting reflection on physical health:

"Quite a lot… are vitamin D deficient, because they have been kept indoors, especially with cannabis farms, I mean that happens anyway with children who have been in trucks." (P9)

Outwith the 'child protection' services, 38 per cent of children and young people were in contact with a church or mosque for additional support and 27 per cent had also accessed housing support as they moved on from social work supported accommodation. One of the professional respondents indicated their concerns about the future risks of young people becoming homeless once the support they were receiving ended. Further follow-up studies are required to monitor this.

While contact with multi-agency services was identified, the exact nature of this contact and provision was not well recorded in files. This is something that requires further investigation to build on a recent report investigating the potential for a 'befriending' service for unaccompanied children (Scott et al 2018). In this context, young people have shed some light on what they find most helpful and supportive.



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