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Modern Slavery and Child Trafficking


Victims of modern slavery and child trafficking should be given protection, get the help they need to recover from their experiences and access to the justice they deserve. This chapter sets out guidance on how to identify and respond to a child or young person where there are concerns that they are a victim or a potential victim of modern slavery or child trafficking.

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Caption: contents list
Accompanied Children
Unaccompanied Children
Internal Trafficking
Risk Factors and Vulnerable Circumstances
Protection and Action to be Taken
Issues and Challenges
Further Information
Amendments to this Chapter


Modern slavery is a form of organised crime in which individuals, including children and young people, are treated as commodities and exploited for criminal gain. Traffickers and slave drivers trick, force and/or persuade children and their parents to let them leave their homes. Grooming methods are used to gain the trust of a child and their parents, e.g. the promise of a better life or education, which results in a life of abuse, servitude and inhumane treatment.

Trafficking of persons’ means the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation includes, at a minimum, sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. Child trafficking or child modern slavery is child abuse which requires a child protection response (see Protection and Action to be Taken). It is an abuse of human rights, and all children, irrespective of their immigration status, are entitled to protection under the law.

Children are recruited, moved or transported and then exploited, forced to work or sold. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 (applicable mostly in England and Wales[1] includes two substantive offences i) human trafficking, and ii) slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.

Children are not considered able to give ‘informed consent’ to their own exploitation (including criminal exploitation), so it is not necessary to consider the means used for the exploitation - whether they were forced, coerced or deceived, is irrelevant and it is not necessary to prove coercion or any other inducement.

Boys and girls of all ages are affected and can be trafficked into, within (so called ‘internal trafficking’), and out of the UK for many reasons and all forms of exploitation - e.g. sex trafficking. Children can be groomed and sexually abused before being taken to other towns and cities where the sexual exploitation then continues. Victims are forced into sexual acts for money, food or a place to stay. Other forms of slavery involve children who are forced to work, criminally exploited and forced into domestic servitude. Victims have been found in brothels or saunas, farms, in factories, nail bars, car washes, hotels and restaurants and commonly are exploited in cannabis cultivation. Criminal exploitation can involve young people as drug carriers, begging and pick-pocketing. Debt bondage (forced to work to pay off debts that realistically they will never be able to), organ harvesting and benefit fraud are other types of modern slavery.

Victims often face more than one type of abuse and slavery, for example they may be sold to another trafficker and then forced into another form of exploitation.

Children and young people may be exploited by parents, carers or family members. Often the child or young person will not realise that family members are involved in the exploitation.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 (applicable mostly in England and Wales[1]) provides two civil prevention orders - the Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Orders (STPO) and Slavery and Trafficking Risk Order (STRO) and provides for child trafficking advocates.

Some young people may not be victims of human trafficking but are still victims of modern slavery. Slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour may also be present in trafficking cases; however, not every young person who is exploited through forced labour has been trafficked. In all cases, protection and support is available through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) process (in England and Wales[2]). The NRM is a ‘victim identification and support process’ for all the different agencies that may be involved (e.g. the police, Home Office, including Border Force, UK Visas and Immigration, local authorities and voluntary organisations). See Introduction to Child Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery and the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

[1] Some provisions also concern Northern Ireland and Scotland. Also see the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 and the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015

[2] (In Scotland and Northern Ireland, however, only trafficking cases (rather than all modern slavery cases) are processed through the NRM

Accompanied Children

Very little is known about accompanied children, many of whom are brought in by adults either purporting to be their parents / carers or stating that they have the parent’s / carer’s permission to bring the child. There are many legitimate reasons for children being brought to the UK such as, education, re-unification with family or fleeing a war-torn country.

Unaccompanied Children

More is known about these children because they come to the notice of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) when they claim asylum. Unaccompanied children may come to the UK seeking asylum as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC), or they may be here to attend school or join their family. In addition an unaccompanied child may be the subject of a Private Fostering arrangement (see Children Living Away from Home (including Private Fostering Arrangements) and Young People who may be Homeless Safeguarding Practice Guidance). Significant numbers of children who are referred to local authority Children's Social Care as UASC, and some who register at school, often then disappear again. It is thought that they are trafficked internally, within the UK, or out of the UK to other European countries.

Internal Trafficking

There is increasing evidence that children (both UK and other citizenship) are trafficked internally within the UK. Children may be trafficked internally for a variety of reasons; many of them similar to the reasons children are trafficked between countries.

Children who are internally trafficked are usually groomed into sexually exploitative situations. Threats, coercion or the offer of gifts, drugs and alcohol may act as an inducement to the child, who may then go missing from home. Abusers are known to transport children to addresses within the UK, sometimes within the abuser’s/child’s home town, where they are coerced into being sexually available to other adults. Such cases fall within trafficking offences listed in the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Most children are trafficked and exploited for financial gain. This can take the form of payment for the child’s parents / carers, and in most cases the trafficker also receives payment from those wanting to exploit the child once in the UK. Some trafficking is by organised gangs, in other cases individual adults traffic children to the UK for their own personal gain. A child may be trafficked for the purposes of:

  • Sexual exploitation (including sexual abuse and images);
  • Domestic servitude (e.g. domestic chores);
  • Labour exploitation (e.g. working in restaurants, cleaning);
  • Enforced criminality (e.g. begging, drug dealing and trafficking);
  • Benefit or housing fraud;
  • Illegal adoption;
  • Female Genital Mutilation; and
  • Forced Marriage.

This list is not exhaustive.

Trafficked children are not only deprived of their rights to health care and freedom from exploitation and abuse, but are also not provided with access to education. The creation of a false identity and implied criminality of the children, together with the loss of family and community, may seriously undermine their sense of self-worth.

All children who have been exploited through trafficking will suffer some form of abuse or neglect.

Risk Factors and Vulnerable Circumstances

Victims may not always be recognised as such by those who come into contact with them. They may be unwilling to come forward to agencies not seeing themselves as victims, or fearing further reprisals from their abusers.

Vulnerable circumstances include:

  • Poverty, limited opportunities at home, low levels of education, and the effects of war are some of the key drivers that contribute to trafficking of victims;
  • Poor and displaced families may hand over care of their children to traffickers who promise to provide them with a source of income, education or skills training, but ultimately exploit them;
  • Wanting to help their families back at home or seeking better futures;
  • Escaping familial situations of harm and abuse, homelessness or being orphaned;
  • A lack of equal opportunities, discrimination or marginalisation and social customs such as children being expected to respect and follow the adult in charge. Faith abuse and other specific practices may be used to control the child. A demand for cheap or free labour or a workforce who can be easily controlled and forced into criminal activity;
  • Unaccompanied, internally displaced children;
  • Some children may say they are unaccompanied when claiming asylum - the trafficker may have told the child that in doing so they will be granted permission to stay in the UK and be entitled to claim welfare benefits;
  • Former victims of modern slavery or trafficking;
  • Trafficked children have an increased risk of going missing from care in the UK, with some rejoining those who exploited them in the first place.


Signs that a child has been trafficked may not be obvious, or children may show signs of multiple forms of abuse and neglect. Spotting the potential signs of child slavery/trafficking in referrals and children you work with can include:

  • A reluctance to seek help - victims may be wary of the authorities for many reasons such as not knowing who to trust or a fear of deportation or concern regarding their immigration status and may avoid giving details of accommodation or personal details;
  • The child seeming like a willing participant in their exploitation, e.g. involvement in lucrative criminal activity - however this does not mean they have benefitted from the proceeds;
  • Discrepancies in the information victims have provided due to traffickers forcing them to provide incorrect stories;
  • An unwillingness to disclose details of their experience due to being in a situation of dependency;
  • Brought or moved from another country;
  • An unrelated or new child discovered at an address;
  • Unsatisfactory living conditions - may be living in dirty, cramped or overcrowded accommodation;
  • Missing - from care, home or school - including a pattern of registration and de-registration from different schools;
  • Children may be found in brothels and saunas;
  • Spending a lot of time doing household chores;
  • May be working in catering, nail bars, caring for children and cleaning;
  • Rarely leaving their home, with no freedom of movement and no time for playing;
  • Orphaned or living apart from their family, often in unregulated private foster care;
  • Limited English or knowledge of their local area in which they live;
  • False documentation, no passport or identification documents;
  • Few or no personal effects - few personal possessions and tend to wear the same clothing;
  • No evidence of parental permission for the child to travel to the UK or stay with the adult;
  • Little or no evidence of any pre-existing relationship with the adult or even an absence of any knowledge of the accompanying adult;
  • Significantly older partner;
  • Underage marriage.

Physical Appearance - Victims may show signs of physical or psychological abuse, look malnourished or unkempt, or appear withdrawn. Physical illnesses - including work-related injuries through poor health and safety measures, or injuries apparently as a result of assault or controlling measures. There may be physical indications of working (e.g. overly tired in school or indications of manual labour).

Sexual health indicators - sexually transmitted infections, or pregnancy; injuries of a sexual nature and/or gynaecological symptoms.

Psychological indicators - suffering from post traumatic stress disorder which may include symptoms of hostility, aggression and difficulty with recalling episodes and concentrating. Depression/self-harm and/or suicidal feelings; an attitude of self blame, shame and extensive loss of control; drug and or/alcohol use.

There are some particularly vulnerable groups of children which include those involved in:

Protection and Action to be Taken

Whenever a practitioner becomes concerned that a child may be a potential victim of trafficking, slavery, servitude, or forced or compulsory labour a referral must be made to the Children's Social Care, Early Help and Safeguarding Hub, in accordance with the Contacts and Referrals with Children’s Social Care Procedure.

Once a potential victim has been identified, practitioners should inform them of their right to protection, support, and assistance in any criminal proceedings against offenders.

Practitioners should also meet any urgent health needs and arrange emergency medical treatment if appropriate.

Practitioners must always ensure that a victim-centred approach is taken when tackling all types of trafficking and modern slavery. This can be achieved by the following:

  • Dealing with the child sensitively to avoid them being alarmed or shamed - building trust, as victims commonly feel fear towards the authorities;
  • Keeping in mind the child’s:
    • Added vulnerability;
    • Developmental stage;
    • Possible grooming by the perpetrator.

It is important that practitioners make careful notes about what is disclosed, as a child’s credibility can be challenged if the child is subject to immigration control on the basis of their disclosure being made in instalments. This will support the child and help others understand the process of disclosure.

When questioning a potential victim, initially observe non verbal communication and body language between the victim and their perpetrator.

It is important to consider the potential victim’s safety and that of their loved ones. Confidentiality and careful handling of personal information is imperative to ensure the child’s safety. Practitioners must not disclose to anyone not directly involved in the case, any details that may compromise their safety.

Referring a Potential Victim of Modern Slavery to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM)

The police or the local authority should make a referral to the NRM for all potential child victims of trafficking and modern slavery, as they may be entitled to further support. Victims can be of any nationality, and may include British national children, such as those trafficked for child sexual exploitation or those trafficked as drug carriers internally in the UK.

The NRM does not supersede child protection procedures, so existing safeguarding processes should still be followed in tandem with the notifications to the NRM. See also; How to Report a Victim of Modern Slavery factsheet.

There is no minimum requirement for justifying a referral into the NRM and consent is not required for a referral in relation to children. Communicate honestly with the child about your concerns and reasons for referring them into the NRM.

To complete and see where to send the forms, and the associated guidance, see Digital Referral System: Report Modern Slavery.

The Duty to Notify – The Police and the Local authority have a duty to notify the Home Office about any potential victims of Modern Slavery. For children, completing the NRM digital form is sufficient to satisfy this requirement.

If the child or anyone connected to them is in immediate danger the police should be contacted as normal.

The Police and Local Authority Children's Social Care must arrange safe accommodation for the potential victim.

Age Assessments

Care of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Child Victims of Modern Slavery: Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities (DfE, 2017) provides that where the age of a person is uncertain and there are reasons to believe that they are a child, they are presumed to be a child in order to receive immediate access to assistance, support and protection in accordance with Section 51 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Age assessments should therefore only be carried out where there is significant reason to doubt that the claimant is a child. Age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of unaccompanied or trafficked children. Where age assessments are conducted, they must be Merton Compliant.

With advice from their lawyers, trafficked children may apply to UK Visas and Immigration for asylum or humanitarian protection. This is because they often face a high level of risk of harm if they are forced to return to their country of origin.

Where the outcome of the assessment is that the child becomes Looked After the Social Worker and carers must consider the child's vulnerability to the continuing influence/control of the traffickers. Planning and actions to support the child must minimise the risk of the traffickers being able to re-involve a child in exploitative activities.

  • The location of the child must not be divulged to any enquirers until they have been interviewed by a Social Worker and their identity and relationship/connection with the child established, with the help of Police and Immigration Services, if required;
  • Foster carers/residential workers must be vigilant about anything unusual e.g. waiting cars outside the premises and telephone enquiries;
  • The Social Worker must immediately pass to the Police any information on the child (concerning risks to her/his safety or any other aspect of the law pertaining either to child protection or immigration or other matters), which emerges during the placement.

The Social Worker must try to make contact with the child's parents/carers in the country of origin (immigration services may be able to help), to find out the plans they have made for their child and to seek their views. The Social Worker must to steps to verify the relationship between the child and those thought to be her/his parents/carers.

Anyone approaching the local authority and claiming to be a potential carer, friend, member of the family etc, of he child, should be investigated by the Social Worker, the Police and immigration service. If the supervising manager is satisfied that all agencies have completed satisfactory identification checks and risk assessments the child may transfer to their care.

The child should be offered an Independent Visitor and, if they decline, their reasons should be recorded. Any Independent Visitor appointed should have appropriate training and demonstrate an understanding of the needs faced by unaccompanied or trafficked children.

In addition, unaccompanied children should be informed of the availability of the Assisted Voluntary Return Scheme.


Children who are trafficked outside of the UK may intrinsically be linked to the immigration system. Practitioners should be aware of the risk of harm to the child if the adult is not able to confirm their immigration status, to avoid a potential child trafficking situation being misconstrued as an ‘immigration matter’ and thus preventing victims from being recognised. It is important that plans for the child’s long term safety are linked to their immigration status, in order to fully understand the child’s real identity and the reasons for not having identification documents or false documentation.

Modern slavery is often hidden in nature, and goes unnoticed in our communities, with under-reporting a major concern. Practitioners have the challenge of reaching out to a vulnerable and an ‘invisible’ set of children. As well as assessing the significant harm to the child, there will need to be consideration for other key areas such as organised crime, working with UK Visas and Immigration, foreign authorities and the National Crime Agency.

Amendments to this Chapter

A link to recently published Statutory Guidance Modern Slavery: How to Identify and Support Victims was added in July 2020.