Child modern slavery poses a grave concern in the UK, impacting both the victims and society at large. Our recently published research project aimed to understand how children and young adults up to 25 years old are identified as victims of modern slavery in the UK, or as being at risk of it, and what works to support early identification and prevent exploitation. The project was funded by the Modern Slavery PEC and carried out in a collaboration between the University of Nottingham Rights Lab and ECPAT UK.
The research, conducted over a period of six months, explored what makes early identification and prevention of modern slavery of children and young people effective, and what factors make it more challenging. The research team mapped out existing initiatives for identification and prevention of child modern slavery in the UK.
The project analyses the current legislative framework and policy initiatives implemented between 2015 and 2023 to enhance the prevention and identification of children who are victims or at risk of modern slavery in the country. It offers a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of existing measures, insights into the pivotal role played by local authorities, and strategies for early identification and prevention.
The research employed a diverse methodology, aimed to capture a comprehensive picture of the issue. The team conducted a systematic evidence review, analysed detailed data on child modern slavery cases obtained through Freedom of Information requests from local authorities, reviewed policy documents from 20 local authorities and conducted 29 key informant interviews and two stakeholder workshops with practitioners and stakeholders. The research team also conducted two participatory workshops with the Youth Advisory Group, bringing a first-hand perspective and experiences into focus.
The research identified several risk factors associated with child modern slavery, including vulnerable family environments, experiences of neglect and abuse, being in care of local authorities, adverse childhood experiences, socio-economic instability, and unstable immigration status. These factors contribute to heightened vulnerability and emphasise the pressing need for targeted interventions and support systems.
Other challenges identified include limited awareness of terms like 'trafficking' and 'exploitation,' varying definitions, insufficient training for first responders, and institutional barriers that hinder early identification efforts. Resource constraints, inadequate communication with children, and biases within organisations represent further obstacles.
The project highlights the fundamental role played by local authorities in identifying children at risk of modern slavery. Despite this, findings show a concerning lack of basic information about children referred by local authorities to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), such as gender, nationality, location of exploitation, exploitation type, county lines, reasonable grounds decision and conclusive grounds decision.
A critical finding of the research is the absence of a comprehensive and overarching child exploitation strategy that enables prevention and early identification of child modern slavery. Effective early identification initiatives highlighted in the research include understanding indicators of exploitation, multi-agency responses, children's rights-compliant intelligence gathering, quality training for professionals, building trust with children, avoiding victim profiling, addressing victim-blaming language, preventing victim criminalisation, investing in families and communities, and recognising the critical role of professionals in education.
Firstly, it is imperative that substantial funding is allocated by all levels of the UK Government to effectively address child modern slavery. Local authority children services must receive adequate resources and the Department for Education should take a proactive approach in developing and implementing early intervention programs, tailored to meet the diverse needs of vulnerable children and young people.
Research findings underline that collaboration is key to an effective response to child modern slavery. The UK Government, in partnership with devolved administrations, relevant government departments and civil society, should develop a national evidence-based ‘Child Exploitation’ strategy. Enhanced data collection and disaggregation on all forms of child exploitation, along with a standardised system for reporting information from local authority children's services, are also essential. Further, the Home Office should ensure that recent immigration enforcement legislation, such as the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Illegal Migration Act 2023, do not heighten the risk of modern slavery for children and young people.
The research findings strongly suggest that the prevention and early identification of child modern slavery demands a coordinated and adequately resourced effort. The emphasis on proactive, rather than reactive, measures is crucial. This highlights the urgency of the government commitment in addressing the root causes of modern slavery and protecting vulnerable children.
The research serves as a compelling call for action, urging governments and stakeholders to prioritise the well-being of children and young people. The implementation of the recommendations has the potential to reshape policies and practices, promoting a more secure environment for children and young adults in the UK.