The criminalisation of young child victims of trafficking

The criminalisation of young child victims of trafficking is a common occurrence in the UK Criminal Justice System. This happens either when children and young people are caught with fraudulently obtained travel documents (with older date of birth) provided by the trafficker or caught engaging in criminal and other forms of illicit activities most of which they have no control over and are unable to prove their date of birth due to lack of documentation. When they get to prison, majority of children and young people still go unidentified as potential victims of trafficking until by a stroke of luck, they are able to tell their story either to their appointed criminal solicitor or a ‘befriender’. At AFRUCA, we receive between two to three referrals each year of young VOTs locked up in prison for one form of criminal activity or the other. Such referrals are often made by organisations working / befriending people in prisons. Other times, it’s a criminal solicitor who picks up on the fact that he/she might have been a victim of trafficking and underage. Consequently, it is possible to have young people spend 2 to 6 months in prison before they are identified as potential child victims of trafficking. This leads to an age assessment conducted in an effort to validate the young person’s age.

Due to the complex nature of child trafficking (especially when the victim is African), a series of events, actors, circumstances and abuses are often involved. Therefore, it often takes longer to unravel the nature and depth of abuse suffered. The severity of the abuse can sometimes make victims incoherent in their story which impacts the credibility of their story. In a recent report by Coram Children’s Legal Centre, social workers were seen to wrongly classify hundreds of asylum-seeking children, including child victims of trafficking, as adults. Hence, in any given assessment, law enforcement officers and social workers need to consider all the evidence placed before them and the individual circumstance of the young person in question before making any generalisation or conclusion.

Take the case of ‘Child X’ (a Nigerian) who was arrested in possession of false documentation. ‘Child X’ told the criminal solicitor appointed for her by the State that she was sixteen years old. However the Crown relied upon her visa application as evidence that she was 22 years old and was consequently put in an adult prison. While in prison, she met a ‘Befriender’ who she recounted her story to. This led the befriender to contact AFRUCA because she felt ‘Child X’ could be a potential victim of trafficking. AFRUCA’s assessment of Child X in prison revealed the following:

  1. That she was in fact a genuine victim of trafficking for sexual exploitation both in her country of origin and in the UK.
  2. She delivered a baby girl 2 months after she got to prison (victim didn’t even know she was pregnant at the time).
  3. She was fleeing from her exploitation with an EU passport document given to her by a “helper”, which she in fact admitted to.
  4. She also admitted that she was 16 years old but the authorities did not believe that this was her true age.
  5. Child X didn’t also understand that she was a victim of trafficking and could get necessary support.

After spending exactly 6 months in prison, Child X was released into foster care. This was after the Crown decided that ‘Child X’ was a victim of trafficking. After another long battle between 2 Local Authorities, an age assessment was conducted for Child X. But the social worker assessed her to be 21 and not 16 years old and she was moved into an adult accommodation.

Impact on victim

  1. ‘Child X’ feels betrayed and victimised especially after the age assessor concluded that she was 21 and not 16 years old.
  2. While in prison, ‘Child X’ reported that she was constantly victimised and bullied by some of the inmates.
  3. She still exhibits high levels of distrust with authorities as she feels no one believes her story.
  4. She exhibits high withdrawal tendencies and has difficulties communicating and developing relationship with her case worker
  5. She is also made to attend adult literacy classes which she doesn’t enjoy because she says ‘they are all old people in these classes’ and she can’t make friends with any of the people in the group.

Key Recommendations

With the overarching issues of the recent changes to legal aid, the culture of disbelief that persists amongst law enforcement officers and social workers, compounded by the lack of early identification of victims in prisons, supporting and protecting the rights of victims of trafficking in the UK might become almost impossible to achieve. Here are some recommendations to consider:

  1. Effective response to the needs of young VOTs should be on a case by case basis and should also address the entire cycle of trafficking that the young person was subjected to rather than a one cap fits all approach currently in place.
  2. Effective measures should be put in place to facilitate early identification of a child victim of trafficking. If there is an age dispute due to false documentation, a quick age assessment should be conducted by children’s services before such a person is remanded in an adult prison.
  3. Establishing a national statutory guidance for age assessments ensuring that the burden of proof is placed on the victim’s testimony and current needs prior to investigation and not after.
  4. The continued training of law enforcement agencies, boarder control staff and social workers cannot be over-emphasised, as this will help fill the intelligence gap as well as curb institutional racism and stereotypes that currently persist within the system.


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