Sharp Increase in Child Trafficking in the UK
The Guardian reports a 90 per cent increase in child trafficking cases in the UK, with the largest plurality coming from Afghanistan.
A total of 957 children, including more than 400 from Afghanistan and 200 from Africa, were picked up by local authorities in the eight months between April 2008 and the end of the year. At least 53 came from Iraq in a development that appears to back up warnings this week from aid agencies and police in the war-torn country of a growing trade in child trafficking to countries including Britain and Ireland…
The children are often hidden in the backs of lorries which travel through ports in Kent and Suffolk and others are smuggled through Heathrow and Gatwick on false papers, according to care officials and the victims’ testimonies. It is thought many are trafficked for exploitation in prostitution and domestic servitude.
Anti-trafficking campaigners are particularly concerned that one in eight of those taken into care go missing. Case workers who help victims said the children are commonly told by their traffickers, often under threat, to flee care…
In Kent, where the largest proportion of trafficked children arrive, facilities to look after suspected victims of child trafficking are thin on the ground. There is only one residential reception centre which can accommodate two dozen children. Yet in the last recorded eight months, authorities there had to try and help 255 Afghan children, 55 from Iran, 50 from Iraq and 49 from Eritrea as well as others from Vietnam, China, Kosovo, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Turkey.
For more on Iraqi criminal gangs trafficking children, see here.
The fact that many of the originating countries are currently or recently suffering from violent conflict helps explain the trend — but not completely. It is interesting, for example, that Kent received more children from Iran than Iraq. The presence of Chinese trafficking victims may say more about the sophistication and resilience of Chinese networks in the UK than anything else. As well, it is likely that only a fraction of victims are actually caught, skewing analytical interpretations.
Last year The Guardian drew a more explicit link between conflict in Afghanistan and child trafficking.
The number of Afghan children discovered being smuggled through Dover has risen dramatically in the last 12 months after a surge in violence between Taliban and Nato forces in Afghanistan. Kent county council picked up 265 smuggled Afghan children between April 2007 and March 2008 – a 55% increase on the previous year. Close to half of all foreign children suspected of being trafficked or smuggled through Britain’s busiest ports now come from Afghanistan.
Kent’s reception facilities are full, mostly with Afghan boys fleeing violence, and one in five go missing after being taken into care. The authorities suspect they enter the hidden economy or fall into exploitation elsewhere in Britain.
Death threats from the Taliban and pressure to undertake suicide bombing missions are among the reasons for fleeing given by the Afghan children. Speaking at a council reception centre in rural Kent, Khalid, the 17-year-old son of a Taliban farmer killed two years ago, explained that his brother threatened to kill him if he did not join the Taliban too.
“I was forced to leave Afghanistan because of pressure from my brother and other members of the Taliban to join their forces and take part in suicide bombings,” he told the Guardian. “I was against the idea, but I had no choice. I had to run away.”
The fact that some children willingly leave their countries does not diminish the criminal aspects of trafficking — first, because many of the children end up being exploited for criminal purposes; and second, because the traffickers themselves are often part of an organised criminal enterprise. A 2007 Home Office report states:
Traffickers of children seem to vary between those that are highly organised and linked with other organised crime, particularly immigration and vice, and those that are individually opportunistic and have trafficked a child on a more informal basis. Traffickers from Albania and China seem to be the most sophisticated and organised. Informal trafficking on the other hand tends to be mainly in regard to exploitation in domestic servitude as well as some instances of sexual exploitation. Trafficking for domestic servitude is often carried out by families that bring over children from source countries in order to look after their children and family members.
The problems of preventing and reducing trafficking are manifold. The victims are difficult to find, and may be unable or unwilling to assist in prosecuting traffickers. Open borders, such as in the EU, facilitate migration. Laws against trafficking may be insufficient or poorly implemented.
One of the key problems, however, is that laws and policies designed to snare traffickers risk criminalising their victims — which is not only a human rights concern, but a deterrent to securing the cooperation of victims in taking down the trafficking rings. Policies improving the rights of trafficking victims are coming online, but it remains to be seen how well they are implemented.
The Home Office has admitted there are barriers to victims of human trafficking seeking help and last week launched a national mechanism so that any suspected victim will be referred to the UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield. It is part of a series of measures which followed the introduction of the Council of Europe convention on human trafficking which came into force in Britain on 1 April. [The Guardian]
Whatever may be done in the UK, trafficking is likely to remain a severe problem within Afghanistan itself (where most victims end up in Pakistan or Iran, exploited for labour or sex). This IOM report (pdf) details the scale of the problem.