ECPAT UKHOME OFFICE DATA reveals that, in 2019-2020, only two per cent of children who were exploited and trafficked to the UK were granted the leave to remain to which they are entitled under international law. 

In a new briefing from child rights organisation Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) UK, figures provided via a Freedom of Information request highlight that although the UK is governed by international human rights treaties which require child victims of modern slavery to be granted leave to remain in their best interests, most child victims of trafficking in the UK are denied it.

  • Data obtained from the Home Office shows that in 2019 and 2020, only two per cent (17 out of 754) of child victims of modern slavery in the UK were granted Discretionary Leave to Remain, in contravention of international law
  • Numbers identified via an FOI request from children’s rights organisation ECPAT UK highlight that children who are exploited and trafficked to the UK are being denied their right to stay, recover from their abuse and build stable futures, as intended by international human rights treaties and as set out in the Home Office’s own policy
  • The Nationality and Borders Bill, currently before Parliament, reforms modern slavery laws but contains no protections or provisions for children and will increase the risk of child exploitation
  • The Government denies the need for any protection for children or that children’s right to remain needs to be on the face of the Bill, arguing instead that children are best protected on a case-by-case basis. Today’s data demonstrates that most child victims of modern slavery are already denied the protections and security of leave to remain in the UK in their best interests
  • ECPAT UK is calling for Clause 64 of the Nationality and Borders Bill to incorporate specific entitlements for children in line with the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (ECAT) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)

Part Five of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which addresses modern slavery, contains widescale reform of the current system which will reduce identification and protection of all victims including British nationals, and does not include any protections or provisions for children. This is a particular matter of  concern in light of the fact that more children than ever were identified as potential victims of trafficking in 2021. In debates on Part 5 of the Bill to date, the Government has stated that child victims of trafficking do not need any specific provisions, and that child rights are better protected on a case-by-case basis, but Home Office data published on 22 February demonstrates that very few of the child victims who are entitled to leave to remain according to their best interests are granted that right.

Child victims of trafficking have rights to protection under the UNCRC and ECAT to ensure they can recover from exploitation and transition to adulthood in safety and stability. Article 14 of ECAT sets out how member states should issue renewable residence permits to victims when required, such as due to ongoing cooperation with law enforcement, but for child victims ECAT is clear that decisions should only be taken in their best interests.

Amendments have been tabled cross-party at every stage of the Bill’s progress to set out this legal standard for children on the face of the Bill. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has expressed significant concern about the Bill’s lack of clarity around immigration status for child victims, and UN human rights experts said: “We are concerned that there is no recognition of the primacy of the rights of the child, or of the State’s obligation to ensure the protection of migrant child victims of trafficking and contemporary forms of slavery, including through the implementation of best interests assessments and determination procedures in migration related decisions.”

There are widespread calls for Part 5 of the Bill to be removed because it conflates responses to modern slavery and trafficking with immigration, will reduce identification and protection of all victims of trafficking including British nationals and will create a damaging two-tier discriminatory system for responses to modern slavery based on immigration status.

Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK, said: “Year on year, the Government is failing child victims of modern slavery, and the Nationality and Borders Bill is set to make things worse – it completely ignores the rights and needs of children, constituting a significant set-back to modern slavery legislation and child protection. The Bill conflates immigration functions with the government’s obligations to identify and protect victims, containing only one immigration provision for victims of modern slavery which is even more restrictive. There is an opportunity to change this, and to bring children’s entitlement into legislation by stipulating immigration leave specific to child victims in the Bill – instead the Government insists they will uphold children’s best interests by judging their needs on a case-by-case basis. This is cold comfort. How can we trust that children and young people will be protected when the numbers published today show that children who are trafficked to this country are too often left in immigration limbo following identification, preventing their recovery and access to support and opportunities?”

Dame Sara Thornton, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, said: “Through my engagement on the Nationality and Borders Bill, I have repeatedly raised the lack of detail on provisions for child victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. In relation to Clause 64 in particular, I have real concerns that the requirement to consider the best interests of a child when making decisions about immigration leave appears to have been ignored. The government has given assurance that this will be addressed on a case-by-case basis however this is not sufficient. The bill provides an opportunity to prioritise children’s rights and protections through primary legislation – we must take it.”

* Read Nationality and Borders Bill: immigration outcomes for child victims of trafficking here.

* Source: Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK