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5.8 Safeguarding Children and Young People who may have been Trafficked


In September 2016, this chapter was completely re-written and should be re-read in full.


  1. Definition
  2. Risks
  3. Indicators
  4. Protection and Action to be Taken
  5. Assessment
  6. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM)
  7. Looked After Child
  8. Issues
  9. Further Information

1. Definition

A person has been trafficked if:

  • They have been moved from one place to another (including movement within the UK); and
  • This has been achieved by the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, by abduction, by fraud, by deception, by the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or by making payments to achieve the consent of a person who has control over the trafficked person; and
  • The purpose of the move is the exploitation of the trafficked person.

Any child transported for exploitative reasons is considered to be a trafficking victim in line with the Palermo Protocol, whether or not they have been forced or deceived. This is because it is not considered possible for children to give informed consent. Even when a child understands what has happened, they may still appear to submit willingly to what they believe to be the will of their parents or accompanying adults. It is important that these children are protected too.

Trafficking of a child also includes recruitment with the intention of exploitation: actual movement of the child is not necessary if the intention can be proved.

2. Risks

Trafficked children may be:

  • Deprived of access to health care and education;
  • Deprived of family contact and normal social life;
  • Exposed to disease and unwanted pregnancy;
  • Harmed through the use of drugs and alcohol used as a disinhibitor, and on which they may become dependent;
  • Physically Abused;
  • Sexually Abused.
    Children may be trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, or they may be sexually abused as a technique of control, or simply because they are vulnerable;
  • Emotionally Abused;
    Trafficked children are likely to live in fear of the adults who control them. In addition the loss of family and community, combined with the creation of a false identity, may seriously undermine their sense of self-worth;
  • Neglected;
    Trafficked children may suffer neglect of their needs through lack of concern for their welfare or because of the need for secrecy. The process of moving the child may involve physical, sensory and food deprivation.

3. Indicators

There are general grounds for suspecting trafficking when:

  • The child has been brought here from elsewhere (overseas or elsewhere in the UK); and
  • There is evidence of exploitation - that is, the circumstances suggest that the child was brought here for someone else’s profit.

The child:

  • Receives unexplained calls;
  • Has money from an unknown source;
  • Shows signs of Sexual or Physical Abuse;
  • Seems to do work in various locations;
  • Has not been enrolled in a school or with a GP.

The child has entered the UK and at the point of entry s/he:

  • Entered illegally without passport or ID papers;
  • Had false papers, goods and money not accounted for;
  • Had no adult with them or to meet them;
  • Was with an adult who refuses to leave them alone;
  • Had no money but a working mobile phone;
  • Was reluctant to give personal details.

The child’s sponsor:

  • Has previously made multiple visa applications for other children or acted as guarantor; or
  • Is known to have acted as guarantor for others who have not returned to their countries of origin at the expiry of the visas.

Identification of trafficked children may be difficult as they might not show obvious signs of distress or abuse. Some children are unaware that they have been trafficked, while others may actively participate in hiding that they have been trafficked. Children who have been trafficked from overseas may believe that they are working towards a better future, and children who have been trafficked within the UK may also not recognise that they are being exploited.

4. Protection and Action to be Taken

If there is a risk to the life of the child or an immediate likelihood of serious Harm, Police or Children’s Social Care should act quickly to secure the immediate safety of a child who may have been trafficked. In some cases it may be necessary to ensure that the child either remains in a safe place or is removed to a safe place. This could be on a voluntary basis, or following the making of an Emergency Protection Order (EPO).

Referral and the Child Protection Process

Following a referral in line with the Making Referrals to Children's Social Care Procedure an Assessment will be carried out by the lead social worker and a Strategy Discussion will take place. It may decide that a Section 47 Enquiry should be carried out which could result in an Initial Child Protection Conference (see Initial Child Protection Conferences Procedure).

If the decision is that the risks do not require a child protection plan, then the child should be responded to as a child in need.

Where a child has been trafficked, the Assessment should be carried out immediately as the opportunity to intervene is very narrow. Many trafficked children go Missing from care, often within the first 48 hours. Provision may need to be made for the child to be in a safe place before any Assessment takes place and for the possibility that they may not be able to disclose full information about their circumstances immediately.

With advice from their lawyers, children who have been trafficked into the UK may apply to UK Visas and Immigration (formerly UKBA), 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. Note however that this is only when there is evidence of a risk of harm in returning. The possibility of a safe return to the child’s country of origin must be fully explored.

5. Assessment

Children trafficked within the UK

During the Assessment the lead social worker should establish the child’s background history and will identify and contact her/his parents, unless this would be inappropriate, for example because they are implicated in the exploitation of the child. The Assessment will include discussion with the child’s home local authority about which area should take the lead in addressing her/his needs.

The lead social worker and team manager will decide whether emergency action is needed to safeguard the child.

Children trafficked into the UK from overseas

During the Assessment, the lead social worker should establish the child’s background history including a new or recent photograph, passport and visa details, Home Office papers and proof and details of the Guardian or carer.

The Assessment should take account of any particular psychological or emotional impact of experiences as an unaccompanied or trafficked child, and any consequent need for psychological or mental health support to help the child deal with them.

Care of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Victims of Modern Slavery: Statutory Guidance for local Authorities (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 Article 10(3) of the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Age Assessments should 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.

During any Section 47 Enquiries, the social worker and team manager will decide whether the child should be referred to The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) as a child who may have been trafficked between countries - the consent of a potential child victim of trafficking is not required for making this referral. A referral to the NRM does not replace the usual child protection process: action under these procedures should continue.

The social worker should check and take copies of all documents held by the referrer and by other relevant agencies. Checking includes looking for discrepancies such as different names given for parents, or a photograph that does not resemble the child. If told that a passport or other important paperwork relating to a child who has entered the country has gone missing, this should ring an alarm: it is extremely unlikely that a person does not know where these papers are kept and this should be considered as an indicator that the child may have been trafficked.

The social worker should place a recent photograph of the child on the social work file or, if this is not available, seek the relevant consent to take a new photograph for the file.

The lead social worker and team manager will decide whether emergency action is needed to safeguard the child - no other action should be taken until there is multi-agency agreement on the way forward. If it appears that the child is not a member of the family with whom s/he is living and that s/he is not related to any other person in the UK, the lead social worker and team manager must consider whether s/he should be removed from the household and whether s/he needs help to return to his/her country of origin or legal advice on making an immigration application.

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.

6. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM)

The NRM is a multi-agency framework to identify and support victims of inter-country trafficking and to ensure consistency of approach across all relevant agencies. The purpose of the NRM is to prevent and combat trafficking, to identify and protect the victims of trafficking and safeguard their rights; and to promote international cooperation against trafficking.

Trained specialists in the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) and UK Visas and Immigration (formerly UKBA) are responsible for determining whether a child’s circumstances come within the definition of trafficking. The UKHTC deals with cases referred by external agencies such as the police, local authorities etc. where the person is a UK or EEA national, or where there is an immigration issue but the person is not yet known to UK Visas and Immigration (formerly UKBA). UK Visas and Immigration deals with situations where trafficking is raised as part of an asylum claim or in the context of another immigration process.

Referrals in relation to children should be made on the child NRM referral form. This link will take you to a Home Office site with the referral form and guidance notes. When making the NRM referral the child should be consulted and given an explanation of the purpose, the concerns, the potential benefits and the possible outcomes.

The referral should be sent to the UKHTC:
By fax to: 0870 496 5534 or
By e-mail to:

This is in addition to action to address the child’s needs, and in particular their need for protection from harm. At this stage there is a significant risk that the child will go missing.

The referral will be allocated to a ”competent authority” in the Home Office or the UKHTC, who will acknowledge receipt of the case. This will be the point of contact for all information about the NRM referral and should be kept up to date with all information relevant to the issue of whether the child has been trafficked.

There are two stages to the NRM process - “the reasonable grounds decision” and “the conclusive grounds decision”.

To make “the reasonable grounds decision” the competent authority will consider the details supplied in the referral and any other information available. The test is met if the competent authority can say “I suspect but cannot prove that this child is a victim of trafficking.” This decision should be made within 5 working days of the referral. The social worker will be notified of the decision - the child will not be notified directly.

If the reasonable grounds test is met, the child will have 45 days for recovery and reflection - during this period no action will be taken to detain or remove him/her. If the child needs longer, for example due to the level of trauma, an application can be made to extend this period.

If the reasonable grounds test is not met there will be no further decision by the NRM. However this does not affect the duty of the local authority to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare, and where further relevant information comes to light a request can be made to the competent authority for the decision to be reviewed.

To make the ”conclusive grounds decision” the competent authority will consider whether, on the balance of probabilities, there is sufficient information to conclude that the child has been trafficked.

7. Looked After Child

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 in the home area or 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 take steps to verify the relationship between the child and those thought to be her/his parent/s. When the child has been trafficked within the UK the two local authorities must make a decision about which of them should hold the lead responsibility.

Anyone approaching the local authority and claiming to be a potential carer, friend, member of the family etc, of the child, should be investigated by the social worker, the police and, if appropriate, the 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.

8. Issues

Children need to be interviewed separately and over time to build up trust and trained Disclosure and Barring Service-checked interpreters should be used - under no circumstances should a person purporting to be the child’s parent, guardian, carer or relative be asked to act as interpreter. Independent legal advice should be arranged and discreet family tracing and contact, if it is safe, should be followed up.

When the Section 47 Enquiries are complete the team manager should arrange a meeting with the social worker, the referring agency (if appropriate), the police and any other professionals involved. A child who is believed to be the victim of an organised trafficking operation needs:

  • A safe placement;
  • Their whereabouts to be kept confidential (traffickers are likely to make strenuous efforts to contact the child and reassert control over him/her);
  • Legal advice on their rights and/or immigration status;
  • Discretion and caution to be used in tracing and contacting their family;
  • A risk assessment of the danger the child is likely to face if s/he is repatriated or returned to their home area (this should be weighed against the risk of the child remaining in the city).

And above all, someone to spend time with them to build up a level of trust.

The location of the child must not be disclosed to any enquirer until the social worker has interviewed them and established their identity and their relationship to the child - if necessary with the help of the police and/or immigration service.

While the child is Looked After by the local authority, assessment of her/his needs will include consideration of:

  • The available information about the child’s background and family and its reliability (the child may fear the consequences of deviating from the cover story imposed by the traffickers because of intimidation by the traffickers);
  • The reasons why the child has come to the UK/Birmingham;
  • The child’s vulnerability to continued influence from the traffickers and the risk that s/he will go missing;
  • How the child was being exploited;
  • How the local authority can protect the child from the influence of the traffickers and further exploitation; and
  • What services might reduce the impact of the exploitation.

Medical and counselling services should be arranged.

A risk assessment of the dangers to the child should be made if the child is to be repatriated.

Attempting to persuade a child victim to testify against a trafficker is complicated. The child usually fears reprisal from the traffickers and/or the adults whom the child was living with in the UK if they co-operate with the police. This includes reprisals against their family in their home country. Children, who might agree to testify, fear that they will be discredited because they were coerced into lying on their visa applications/immigration papers.

9. Further Information

Safeguarding Children who may have been Trafficked, Non-statutory Good Practice Guidance, Department for Education and the Home Office, 2011

National Referral Mechanism: guidance for child first responders

Modern Slavery Act 2015 – Home Office Circular

Modern Slavery: Duty to Notify (Home Office 2016) - Factsheets and posters that explain what you need to do if you think someone has been a victim of modern slavery

Care of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Victims of Modern Slavery: Statutory Guidance for local Authorities (2017)

UK Briefing Paper on Child Trafficking: Begging and Organised Crime, ECPAT 2010

On the Safe Side: Principles for the Safe Accommodation of Child Victims of Trafficking, ECPAT, 2011

Victims of modern slavery: guidance for frontline staff - UK Visas and Immigration modernised guidance for how it identifies and helps potential victims of modern slavery