Britain's hidden children
by Mark McGregor
BBC News, Manchester
March 19, 2007
When Marie, a young girl from Cameroon, turned up in Manchester at the end of 2004 she was just one of hundreds of asylum seeking children alone in the city looking for help.
Her story was harrowing. Having been trafficked to France and forced into prostitution by her aunt, she fled to Britain with the help of a man who said he would help her escape.
Suffering from a range of physical and mental health problems, probably as a result of the abuse she endured, Marie was admitted to hospital.
Within two months she was dead. A post-mortem examination revealed natural causes. She was 16.
Sadly, Marie's case is thought to be just the tip of the iceberg and part of a growing industry which contributes to the 5,000 child sex slaves recently estimated to be working in the UK by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
This comes as the UK marks the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary Act to abolish the slave trade.
According to Ecpat UK, an organisation which represents charities working against child exploitation, Marie's was one of 28 known cases of trafficked children in Manchester in 2005.
Warning over UK child trafficking
A subsequent serious case review at Manchester City Council revealed a “failure to connect things and see what was happening” among the agencies which dealt with Marie, according to Pauline Newman, Director of Children's Services.
Since then, the council has worked hard to change its practises to the extent it has become a leading authority in its work with children from abroad.
In addition to developing guidance on child trafficking, a new refugee and asylum team was set up within the children's division, and regular strategy meetings are held with other agencies on suspected cases.
“Sometimes with new forms of child abuse it takes people time to get their heads around it,” said Mrs Newman.
“What we have done as a result of that (serious case review) is plan all our future work based on what we learnt.
“I think the biggest problem for practitioners is that they need training to recognise what's happening, because not all asylum seeking children are trafficked. We need to train staff to recognise those who are.
“That's about opening your eyes to how that might manifest itself and then being confident enough to take the appropriate action.”
Manchester's child social workers are now specially trained in recognising signs of trafficking, but accurate figures for the scale of the issue in the city are almost impossible to come by because of its covert nature.
Professionals can only help those children they are alerted to, but according to Ecpat UK, one of the biggest concerns is the number of trafficked children who simply go missing.
Mrs Newman admits it is the major problem they face, and says trafficked children “disappear as fast as they appear”.
Assuming a confused, scared foreign-language child can find an agency to help them in the first place, a social worker eventually has to ask the question: “Have you been trafficked?”
“It isn't the easiest thing in the world to work up to say to somebody who, if they have been trafficked, will be extremely frightened and may well not trust agencies like ourselves… and then they have been deceived and abused by adults in general,” said Mrs Newman.
“They enter the system and they can disappear of their own volition, or sometimes they can be taken back into the trafficking network by the people who are pushing back against the things we are doing,” she said.
“And for children who are unaccompanied asylum seeking children – which includes some who will have been trafficked – there is this tension between the law on asylum and immigration and the law on children.”
According to the charities who work with trafficked children it is this friction between these two laws that lead to children disappearing, only exacerbating the problem.
Ecpat UK has criticised the latest Home Office consultation
In early March, the Home Office released a consultation document outlining plans for better outcomes for unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
But far from helping professionals work with conflicting legislation, Ecpat UK argues that its proposals will actually make the situation worse and drive more children underground.
“It will effectively undermine some of the protection work being done to protect victims of child trafficking,” project director Christine Beddoe told BBC News.
“Although there are already significant problems in recognising the needs of victims, the policies coming out are putting children even further at risk, because they completely ignore their needs.”
Ms Beddoe says one of the most controversial aspects of the document is plans to base any child's asylum application on their first interview with the authorities, at the time when they are most vulnerable and wary.
“We know that they don't disclose immediately,” she said. “They are usually living under fear of threats or coercion – they're not going to disclose that they have been trafficked.
“For those who are more vulnerable – those who have been trafficked, abused or exploited – it leaves them more exposed to the criminal networks.”
For those on the frontline in Manchester, all unaccompanied asylum seeking children are treated as any other child and are admitted to care if they are under 16.
Mrs Newman says there is “no doubt the laws sit uneasily together”, but the council nevertheless has to work within them.
“They become a looked after child and they should be treated as one, but because they know and we know that they may have to leave the country when they are 18, we have to have a 'twin track' with them,” she said.
“A large issue for them is, 'Well if I go underground, as I am getting older will I find myself able to stay?'.
“Our job is to say: 'We can make you safe'. And that's what we try to do.”