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.

Young people's experiences of support in Scotland

Five young people, identified by the Scottish Guardianship Service, agreed to be interviewed and shared their experiences of the services they engaged with in Scotland.[28] The Scottish Guardianship Service was established in 2010 to support child victims of trafficking and unaccompanied asylum seeking children in navigating complex legal, welfare, protection and asylum systems. It is recognised internationally as a good practice model for working with unaccompanied children and young people (Crawley and Kohli 2013; Ivan 2016).

Given that this was the first time young people in Scotland have been consulted about their views of services as victims/survivors of human trafficking, their voices are afforded a specific section in this report. Due to the small sample size and the potential for young people to be recognised, interview extracts are fully anonymised and gender-neutral terms used when referring to the young people's views.The views of these young people cannot be considered representative of all child victims of trafficking in Scotland due to the small sample size and their recruitment via the Scottish Guardianship Service.

Young people were asked about the support they had accessed in Scotland. Rather than commenting on particular interventions, programmes or services, young people generally highlighted the value of social and relational support as the most useful aspect of service provision. It was apparent that young people considered support in these areas of their lives to be a priority, helping them to navigate the complex systems they found themselves in.

While there were some negative experiences of different agencies, these were largely due to wider system and enforcement issues, rather than the agencies per se. In this respect, the findings below relate specifically to issues that young people perceive to be important. It is apparent that most agencies were able to adapt to accommodate young people's concerns. Where problems were highlighted, it was not particular agencies that were problematic, but the system in which they operate.

The one service that was consistently highlighted as helpful and beneficial was the Scottish Guardianship Service. All the young people explained that the SGS, particularly their own guardian, had been instrumental in enabling them to feel supported. As one young person commented:

"I have no words for what my guardian meant for me. It's someone who is always there for you regardless."

Available, flexible and caring

Knowing that someone cared, as well as the flexibility and availability of professionals, was highlighted by all of the young people as the most meaningful aspect of the support provided. They explained that being able to phone, text or drop in to the Guardianship Service and talk through their worries was useful: "if I have a problem I just phone [my guardian] – if I was depressed or whatever".

When asked specifically what their guardian had done that was most useful to them, young people focused on the emotional support and encouragement. As one young person put it: "she always motivates me and encourages me". Another young person explained that having a sense that someone cares, is crucial "[my guardian] is very kind and always asks if I am alright".

Young people also indicated that flexible access to services (especially counselling) if and when required was particularly helpful. Young people identified that this counselling support was not necessarily about their previous experiences, but about their sense of uncertainty about the future as they were caught in the asylum and other systems.

Trust and relationships

In the context of flexible and caring services, a crucial aspect of support for young people was professionals who provided space and time to develop a trusting relationship. Young people acknowledged that it was often difficult to build relationships and that initially they were unsure of who the professionals were.

Young people had concerns around initially not knowing about the roles of different services and professionals. This sense of uncertainty was compounded for some young people when they were told:

"'Oh you are safe now'…like I used to hate that when I first came here…first of all I don't understand, I don't even know I have rights. I don't even know anything about the laws or, I don't know anything".

It appears that some young people in initial contact with agencies were often not aware of which services were focused on providing support, and which were more focused on immigration and asylum concerns. The young person quoted above seemed to suggest that safety is often an elusive concept when there has been exploitation and they are in a strange country, not knowing the systems in place to look after them. It is therefore, understandable that children do not initially trust professionals who tell them they are safe. Safety during the initial period of arrival and settling, when children and young people are unsure of the systems and who they can trust, is a potentially contested issue.

Young people were also acutely aware of how at times it was difficult for them to build safe and trusting relationships:

"Like she had battles with me like at the beginning, cos I wasn't opening up myself. She just kept banging on my door, like asking if I am OK. I think like, she just really wanted for me to be OK and to be safe."

Within this context trust was central to enabling young people to feel safer in services, even when not initially understanding their purpose. Young people highlighted, small, but meaningful things, which helped them to feel safer. For instance: "she gave me the right to not trust her…she was like 'it's OK, you don't have to trust me because you do not know me'".

All of the young people explained that it took time to build trust. One young person commented on the development of their relationship with the guardianship service compared with their existing contact with social services:

"At first I was sceptical…I had so much contact with social work and they were really nasty. One support worker contacted guardianship and they came to see me. I thought they're just trying to be nice and get my permission then they will just twist my words…then I realised they were nice and I started trusting them".

Another described how "when I first came here I used to watch [TV show] so every night [my guardian] would go home and watch [TV show too] so we could talk about it the next day". Another young person explained that after interviews when they were feeling particularly stressed, "We would go out for coffee or a cake and she would make you laugh in some way".

While the young people were clear about the difficulties in establishing trusting relationships and telling their stories, professionals also concurred with the difficulties associated with "processes that have been designed to meet the needs of people within the UK who have a basic understand of our system and what happens" (P6). Within this context, characterized by a lack of understanding, young people were also clear of the importance of meeting other young people who were in similar circumstances.

Peer support and time out

When asked about the challenges they had faced since arriving in Scotland, and some of the things that had helped, young people explained that opportunities to meet other people who were in similar circumstances was important. Interestingly, professionals did not talk about this specifically in their interviews. In describing social isolation, mental health issues, worries about safety and asylum, and distrust in professionals, spaces where peer relationships could be developed and maintained were a key supportive factor for young people because: "When you're first here, like how do you make friends? You're in your flat all the time unless you have an interview".

For the young people, meeting others in a similar situation contributed to a sense of belonging and not being alone. Isolation could exacerbate existing difficulties with mental health and promote rumination about thoughts they found difficult to manage on their own. A few participants explained that this loneliness could make them feel 'crazy'. Therefore, the opportunities to get out and do things, like trips with other young people, drop-ins and social gatherings had been useful to their recovery.

While these activities were valued by young people as an opportunity to meet others, they also appeared to promote the element of trust, where they could "be yourself" with other young people who had been through "the same", without professionals trying to make 'sense' of their stories. Meeting other young people, in a protected environment, was clearly a factor that contributed to feeling safer and feeling a sense of belonging in Scotland.

The role of professionals in supporting contact with other young people was crucial, with social workers and guardians identified as facilitating this at different points:

"My social workers came to talk to me, explain to me about life here – sometimes I ask the staff to take me out so I can relax."

"When we moved here, we didn't know anyone, we didn't know how to get around...So the guardianship was quite helpful. We'd go on residentials, and do activities. Things like that – group activities and things like that every week. Yeah, where no one's watching what you say all the time and trying to twist your words".

Another young person explained how their social worker had "helped me to meet other people like me". The role of the Scottish Guardianship Service also supported this aspect of meeting others, as one young person stated "the guardians – they do like receptions, like gatherings twice a month here".

The opportunity for time out and contact with their peers appeared crucial for young people in adapting to life in Scotland. The role of both social workers and guardians was considered important to this, although again it was the available, flexible and caring aspects of the professionals that was important, not the professional title.

Navigating systems

Within the broader importance of relationships, young people's views on what constituted a good service also included the support needed to navigate new, and complex, systems. Access to accommodation, education and legal support featured in interviews with young people. Young people emphasised that support to access education and accommodation was particularly important; firstly as a means of feeling safe, and secondly as a way of getting to know other young people.

While social workers were most likely to be one of the first professional contacts for young people, most often young people indicated they spoke to their guardians to help them with the intersection of all the systems "to know and understand about life here. They helped me to know about permissions to stay here". Examples were provided of guardians accompanying young people to meetings with other professionals and explaining procedures and policies to them.

It was clear that professionals, regardless of the agency they worked for, who took the time to explain processes, and support young people through complex systems had a substantial impact on helping young people to settle and feel supported. Young people were grateful to the people who supported them, finding it difficult to think of what had not helped or to suggest areas for development.

There was recognition by young people that they were in a system that was governed by legislation and procedures often with limited resources. The statutory duties of social workers, and decisions made in relation to accommodation and age assessment for example, may account for some of the mixed experiences. This young person expressed a sense of disempowerment, encapsulating a number of concerns with the system:

'It's just how it works in Britain…the legal stuff, I don't think they can change it…I would say they need to change everything, but I don't think they [the system] care. It's just the process, and probably cos of the money, to treat everyone well and support their needs. I don't think they're [the system] interested in that…Yeah I think it's the budget and things like that."

Another young person recognised the amount of work required in supporting young people:

"The guardians help a lot of children and I know that my guardian, she has to help a lot of other children, it seems like it's overwork for her – there are so little [few] guardians but there are many children."

Asylum - not knowing, telling and re-telling

"I didn't really understand the whole process, it was quite stressful…I couldn't handle all the hoping, and I didn't understand why. One time immigration came to the flat. It was stressful."

Continuing asylum issues were spoken about many times in interviews with professionals and young people. Young people commented on this as a source of worry and anxiety for them and for other young people they knew. Some young people said they had accessed counselling primarily due to the constant uncertainty about their safety and asylum decisions (an example of system trauma). These were ongoing issues which impacted their mental health significantly when "it's hard to open up and say what you need and what you want" – presumably because of concerns about decisions that may be made regarding support and asylum claims.

In relation to the asylum process the impact of having to re-tell their trauma multiple times was mentioned by a number of young people. This comment captures some of the difficulties:

"You feel like everything is going really quickly and you don't have time to breathe. You have to tell your story again and again and again. One of my friends…was saying it's like a pain that's banging on your skin all of the time and won't go away…I can pinpoint where I used to have a lot of breakdowns – it was after interviews, it wasn't like during interviews. During interviews I was afraid – how can I say this? I'd have to kind of have a brave face but once I've finished, this person's just opened up a whole closet, taken out all the information that person wanted, and now I have to deal with the mess in my head. You're awakening a lot of trauma and a lot of bad experiences. All of that, and now I have to go to my flat…and you want me to go through this every week. So it was going really fast, you don't have time to breathe."

The same young person then explained how this ongoing anxiety and trauma impacted the kinds of answers they felt able to provide in asylum interviews. It indicates young people may often respond as they think professionals want them to:

"You're not gonna get a good answer from [the young people], and then you're gonna use that answer…people are just gonna say what they think you want to hear."

In this context the prospect of re-telling stories several times, and not just for asylum and immigration purposes, was described as a source of anxiety for young people.

Despite the challenges, young people were largely positive about their experiences of receiving support from professionals through all the systems and processes. It was clear from the accounts of young people interviewed that the Scottish Guardianship Service was heavily relied upon in a resource-scarce landscape, for additional emotional and practical support. Young people also recognised and appreciated the support from social work services, although there were more mixed feelings in relation to social work, with one young person expressing concern that their social worker had discriminated against them. The importance of counselling services was also mentioned although across the case file sample access to such services was varied.

The young people, all of whom had been in Scotland for a number of years, recognised that resources were scarce, and support services were operating in this environment of financial constraints. While not necessarily agreeing with it, they also recognised they were in a legal and welfare system that had certain processes in place, but were doubtful that the system would change for their benefit. However, when asked about what could make support services better for them, most young people struggled to answer, indicating that they appreciated the support that they had received. It was not necessarily the service that was important, but the ability of professionals to provide support that was flexible and caring, providing opportunities to build trust, helping to navigate different systems and minimising the need to constantly tell and re-tell their stories.



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