Imagine you are in another country; somewhere you don’t speak the language and know no one. What would you do if you had an emergency and desperately needed help? Who would you turn to for advice and support?
Now imagine that you are a teenager sent abroad to work to pay off debts owed by your parents to criminal gangs. The only people you know are the people who have brought you from your home.
Your passport is taken away and you are constantly threatened with violence if you run away. They bully you, warning of dire consequences for your family if you fail to meet their demands.
You are told that, if you try to seek help, the police will lock you up and torture you because you don’t have a visa. Only by doing what these people want will you be safe. How would you begin to find help?
This is the experience of hundreds of children trafficked to the UK each year. Some will be in private homes working as household servants, toiling for perhaps 20 hours a day in poor living conditions and with little freedom.
Others are made to beg or steal. Some tend cannabis plants, while others could be working in your high street nail salons; and still others are being sexually exploited behind closed doors.
Trafficking is a terrible ordeal for anyone, but for children who are often targeted, precisely because of their innate vulnerability, the experience can be devastating. This is why the help and protection we offer them, once they are rescued, is so crucial.
Children who have been trafficked need many different things, such as safe accommodation, medical care, education, help with immigration applications, legal advice and so on.
To access all these, a child must go to different places and deal with a variety of different professionals, which means they are continually repeating their story of exploitation, over and over again.
For a child who is in a foreign country, with a limited understanding of English, all this is confusing and overwhelming. These children need the support of one person, who can be alongside them in all these different situations; someone who has specialist training in trafficking and who can speak up for their child’s best interests, including speaking on their behalf if necessary.
Research has shown that the current systems of caring for trafficked children are not able to meet this need. Such children are susceptible to threats from their traffickers, who are often the only person they have known or trusted in this country.
This sense of confusion can be one of the things that leads trafficked children to abscond from local authority care, straight back into the hands of those who are exploiting them.
Official statistics show that 32 per cent of trafficked children being looked after by local authorities between 2005 and 2010 went missing. Many charities estimate that the number is much higher.
Child trafficking guardian
This is why CARE and other organisations have been urging the government to introduce a specialist role called a ‘Child Trafficking Guardian’, over the last few years.
In April, a vote in the House of Lords paved the way for this to become a reality. Four members of the House of Lords from across the political spectrum proposed an amendment to the Immigration Bill to introduce child trafficking guardians.
It was the third time that these particular peers (Baroness Butler-Sloss, Lord McColl of Dulwich, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon and Lord Carlile of Berriew) had brought such an amendment to the Lords in the past two years; and on this occasion the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly in favour, by 282 votes to 184.
The Immigration Bill has not yet finished its passage through Parliament and it is possible that the government, which opposed the amendment, may try to reject it when the Bill returns to the House of Commons.
However, the vote in the House of Lords was so convincing that it will be difficult for the government to completely ignore it. The government recently softened its opposition to the idea, announcing some trial schemes of specialist advocates for trafficked children, which will begin later this year.
Modern Slavery Bill
However, we believe that, in order to be effective, the role needs to be defined in law. Significantly, just the day after the vote in favour of the child trafficking guardian scheme, a special Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament also endorsed the idea, in a report on the draft Modern Slavery Bill.
This committee was set up to review the draft of the Modern Slavery Bill, which the government will bring to Parliament in the next few months, and which is intended to come into force in time for the general election.
Given the clear desire for a legally established role, we hope that before too long, either in the Immigration Bill or perhaps transferred to the Modern Slavery Bill, this vital support will be available for every vulnerable trafficked child, that it will offer them constant specialist support, as they begin their journey towards a new restored life after the horror of trafficking.
The author is chief executive of CARE