UK Home Secretary started the New Year vowing to further tighten asylum laws, despite the rising number of migrant children victims of trafficking in the UK, which suggests that more protection rather than less is needed to fight human trafficking, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor warned in a statement today.

The number of potential victims of human trafficking in the UK raised to 10,613 in 2020, from 1,182 in 2012, with the number of children almost quadrupled between 2016 and 2020, rising from 1,279 to 4,946. At the end of 2020, more children than adults were referred to UK’s National Referral Mechanism for the first time ever. According to official figures, at least 2,634 migrant children who arrived in the UK in the past four years were victims of human trafficking and their number continues to rise year by year, with the true number likely to be even higher.

   Any child going missing should be a concern of paramount importance, particularly if unaccompanied, isolated and traumatized. On the contrary, the number of migrant children victims of trafficking is rising in the UK alongside the barriers to their protection.   

Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor

Unaccompanied children arriving in UK are particularly vulnerable, as the EU police agency (Europol) has raised concerns that traffickers are increasingly targeting migrant children, especially if unaccompanied, and hundreds have already gone missing in UK in the past year after entering the asylum system. In the UK, one in four trafficked children and one in six unaccompanied children in care are reported missing.

Unaccompanied children may be kidnapped by traffickers after their arrival, or may escape their accommodation facilities, due to the failures in their reception, becoming particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and criminal exploitation. Indeed, hundreds of unaccompanied children who crossed the Channel in small boats have been placed in run-down hotels, with some aged under 16, in breach of The Children Act 1989.          

The UK asylum system itself is a push factor for child exploitation as well as other forms of significant harms, such as mental health deterioration and increased risk of suicide.

This systematic disregard for migrant children is not new. Already in 2018, a quarter of trafficked children who were in the care of local authorities in the UK have gone missing. In March 2019, at least 60 Vietnamese children disappeared from Dutch shelters, probably trafficked into the UK to work. In 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel was accused of putting pressure to speed up the age assessment of unaccompanied minors, also offering legal and economic help for councils sued after wrongly assessing the age of asylum seekers who turned out to be underage.

Despite this, the Home Secretary Priti Patel has started the New Year saying she intends to end the “legal merry-go-round of spurious asylum seeker claims” in 2022, passing the Nationality and Borders Bill into law, deterring “illegal entry” across the Channel and cracking down on people smugglers.

Yet the Nationality and Borders Bill raises many concerns about the potential impact on migrant children and specifically trafficking victims. In particular, it fails to distinguish between adult and child trafficking victims and requires to provide any information relating to a potential claim of being a victim of trafficking by a specified date, otherwise it will damage the person’s credibility. Moreover, it automatically disqualifies those who are a “threat to public order” (including minors that may have served custodial sentences of over a year due to offences committed as part of their exploitation) from being identified as trafficking victims and from a series of protective measures.         

Any child going missing should be a concern of paramount importance, particularly if unaccompanied, isolated and traumatized. On the contrary, the number of migrant children victims of trafficking is rising in the UK alongside the barriers to their protection” said Michela Pugliese, migration researcher at Euro-Med Monitor, “The Home Secretary’s new Bill will undermine the state’s ability to identify and protect victims of trafficking and will run exactly counter to the proposed goal of fighting human trafficking, meaning that the victims rather than their traffickers will be penalized”.

Euro-Med Monitor calls on the UK to safeguard and protect migrant children in line with their international obligations and especially with the duty to ensure the best interest of the child as a primary consideration; to take action to combat child trafficking and exploitation; to guarantee that authorities are equipped to identify potential child victims of modern slavery at the earliest opportunity; to accommodate migrant children in safe and appropriate facilities, especially considering the widely reported links between unregulated accommodation and exploitation; and to guarantee that the Nationality and Borders Bill complies with the European Convention on Human Rights and other international human rights’ treaties that bind the UK, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, the UN Palermo Protocol and the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons especially Women and Children.