Child victims of trafficking in Scotland have described the UK’s immigration system as “distressing” and said being left in “limbo” is worse than their experiences of exploitation.
The children – some of whom suffered modern slavery – come from countries such as Afghanistan, Albania, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, Vietnam and Sierra Leone. They have urged the Home Office to urgently improve the system.
In a new report they highlighted the lengthy asylum decision-making process and claimed UK Government procedures undermine young people’s rights and place them at risk of further exploitation.
The Home Office said it is committed to caring for children and tackling modern slavery.
It emerged recently that the number of applicants awaiting decisions on asylum applications had risen 300 per cent in four years, despite Home Office promises to speed up the process.
The children were interviewed at a series of workshops across the UK for a report called Creating Stable Futures: Human Trafficking, Participation and Outcomes for Children.
The study follows the Home Office’s recent reclassification of modern slavery as an “illegal immigration and asylum issue” – despite the fact that child trafficking and exploitation are recognised as a form of child abuse.
The authors of the new report said the UK Government has a legal duty to care for every child who requires protection, “regardless of who they are, where they came from or how they arrived in the UK”.
Altogether, 31 young people participated in workshops this year at three locations in England and Scotland.
They talked about the negative impact of lengthy immigration procedures, contrasting with the Home Secretary’s recent claims that modern slavery laws in the UK are “being abused by people gaming the system”.
Highlighting the “multiple and persistent barriers” to accessing documentation, the youths talked about the challenges involved in securing decisions relating to their immigration status and of being left worrying about an uncertain future.
“This period of limbo was described by some young people as worse than their trafficking experiences, particularly given the uncertainty they faced daily with a significant impact to their mental health and links to feeling unsafe,” the report said.
One young trafficking victim cited in the report said: “The most difficult part is after you’ve had your interview, waiting for the decision, imagine you have plans to go to uni, you can’t because you’ll be just like, ‘Will I get this? Will I get that? What will be the decision? Yes or no?.’ And this takes more time and you don’t know what to do, you’re just like waiting every day.”
Another young person quoted said that during an interview with the Home Office they had to answer 130 questions despite having previously provided all the information to officials with their lawyer.
The interviews have framed the development of a new “positive outcomes framework” which, the report’s authors said, can be used by practitioners and policymakers when supporting young victims of trafficking.
The report calls on the UK Government to ensure that child victims are always afforded their rights to protection and care, and on the Home Office specifically to “ensure the immigration and asylum system does not re-traumatise children”.
The research was funded by Modern Slavery PEC and led by the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University, with the Institute of Applied Social Research at the University of Bedfordshire, and in partnership with ECPAT UK.
Professor Patricia Hynes, Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, Sheffield Hallam University, said: “Children and young people have rights – rights to be heard, participate and be able to develop their lives and contribute to society. In this research we found a real lack of focus in existing literature about these rights to personal development and this really contrasted with how young people imagined their own futures.”
Dr Helen Connolly, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Bedfordshire, said: “The language of outcomes developed by the young people in this project is the language of dignity, reflecting their hopes for themselves, and for others, to a life that is safe, peaceful and allows them to freely contribute to the communities they live in. It opens up some fresh ways to interpret the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child for law, practice and policy that keeps children and young people’s humanity and development at the centre.”
Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK, said: “To be and to feel safe and protected is a fundamental right for children. In this report, young victims of trafficking and exploitation are telling us in the strongest possible terms how important this protection is – how critical it is for them to feel safe in order to recover from their abuse and begin to build stable futures. They also tell us that often they do not feel safe at all, and are fearful about their futures, their status in the UK, re-trafficking and other threats to their health and wellbeing.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Home Office takes seriously our duty of care towards looked after children and young people and we are committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery.
“In the UK we have a world leading system to support those who are genuine victims. Whilst there are delays in the system, we are working to prioritise applications from children and young people whilst we increase overall decision maker numbers and capacity.”
Cover image thanks to Tinnakorn Jorruang / iStock