Trafficking: why it’s everyone’s business

Charlotte Bozic and Jill McAfee write about why working together and taking a child-centered approach is key to tackling child trafficking, following the ‘Child Trafficking: A Scottish Perspective’ conference.

On October 29, the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice held a conference to raise awareness of trafficked children in Scotland and the practice issues of identification, assessment and support of potential victims.

Speakers at ‘Child Trafficking: A Scottish Perspective’ included Tam Baillie, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People; Philip Ishola, CEO of the Counter Human Trafficking Bureau; Kirsty Thomson, Legal Services Agency; Detective Robin Veitch from Police Scotland’s National Human Trafficking Unit; Catriona MacSween, Aberlour Guardianship Project; Catherine Duggan, Child Protection Lead at the Scottish Government; and Sheila Murie, of Glasgow City Council’s Child Protection service. Beth Smith, Director of WithScotland, independently chaired the event.

It is estimated that 2,744 people, including 602 children, were potential victims of trafficking last year across the UK. Almost a third of the victims in Scotland suffered sexual exploitation, while others experienced labour exploitation and criminal exploitation. As the second biggest form of criminal activity, trafficking is an extremely lucrative business.

In 2012, the Scottish Parliament hosted a national summit on human trafficking that was attended by experts and policy makers from across the world. Recommendations came out of this event with multiagency sub groups set up to progress these. The progress of the subgroups was considered in June/July this year. We’re finally waking up to the fact that, as Tam Baillie put it, “trafficking is happening under our noses” and that action needs to be taken.

During the morning break, someone asked me why CYCJ had chosen to host this particular event. Robin Veitch answered this very question during his presentation. “Criminal exploitation” of young people is on the rise, therefore trafficking is not just an issue for those who work in child protection. Young people may first come to the attention of youth justice or criminal justice staff and it is everyone’s job to ensure that children are protected and supported from abuse – and trafficking of children is without a doubt child abuse.

All of the speakers emphasised the importance of agencies working together and sharing information to protect victims. Unfortunately, policy areas can work in silos, preventing true multiagency learning and working together. The diversity of the conference’s audience showed the commitment of CYCJ to bring practitioners together to share knowledge and expertise for the benefit of children and young people.

The UK was named as one of the top source areas for child trafficking, a fact that shocked everyone present. It is perhaps not surprising though, given the capacity to make vast amounts of money. For those perpetrating trafficking, this is a business. It might look slightly different in the UK from other countries in terms of the methods of manipulation and control, but the final result is the same across the world – traffickers exploiting more vulnerable people for their own means, and the complete disregard of the human rights of the victim.

Whilst trafficking is traumatic no matter what your age, children are more vulnerable, susceptible and compliant – making them the ideal victims for exploitation, particularly criminal. Many are sold into debt bondage, without understanding what is happening to them, and can often endure years of horror before they are rescued – if indeed they are rescued.

In some cases a young person’s first contact with the authorities is when they are arrested for criminal activity. The ‘victim’ label becomes ‘criminal’, which in turn becomes the most important thing about them. Instead of receiving the support they are so desperately in need of, they are given a prison sentence and then deported. They are children first and foremost – yet their needs are too often ignored by the professionals who are meant to be helping them.

That’s not down to incompetency or neglect. Part of the reason, as Tam Baillie admitted, is that it can be challenging as a practitioner to “keep up to speed with a slightly intimidating landscape, and to get your head round all the requirements of children who may be trafficked”.

Philip Ishola highlighted that as “seemingly complicated” as the issue might be, it doesn’t have to be “rocket science”. He praised everyone present: “The fact that you are in this room together is a clear message that there’s an intent to address this issue.”

He urged everyone to “respond with compassion” and reminded us that even the smallest action can make a huge difference on a global humanitarian scale. It may not lead to the answers, but it will certainly lead the way. He pointed out that whilst we talk about ‘child-centred’, we treat unaccompanied children differently to those in the UK, which he described as being “corrosive, destructive and undermining what we do”. He stressed that: “This is a child protection, child abuse issue. If you see the abuse, see the vulnerable child, you take action – as you always do.”

“Children should not be treated differently – if we follow that principle, there are no barriers,” he said, adding: “It’s a multiagency issue – there is no one agency that should be leading on this.”

The themes of Philip’s talk were echoed by the speakers that followed him, all of whom agreed on the importance of a multidisciplinary approach. Police Scotland have made all of their 17,5000 officers aware of what to do if they encounter a suspected trafficking case, and they are committed to following an investigation through, even if it leaves Scotland.  Catriona MacSween of the Aberlour  Guardianship project, which provides specialised support to young people who have been trafficked or are seeking asylum, told of how the service has impacted on Home Office decision making, whilst Sheila Murie talked about Glasgow City Council’s progressive vulnerable young person’s and child protection policy.

The day was packed with information, facts and discussion, and the final panel discussion could have been an event in itself.  Feedback from delegates was excellent, with praise for the “very interesting range of speakers”, “powerful presentations” and real concerns about the identification and assessment of trafficked children.

For me, the working together theme resonated strongly. Philip Ishola describes this as a “difficult time for humanity…help/support is critical”. As we all know, it’s not uncommon to open the paper and read about the discovery of a slave who has been living in someone’s basement for decades. Yet people’s desire ‘not to meddle’ can be stronger than their desire to act, even if they suspect something.

I suspect I wasn’t the only came who came away with a real desire to be that one individual who Philip Ishola claimed could make a difference.

View the presentations from this conference online.

Pictured: Philip Ishola and Tam Baillie. 

About our bloggers

Charlotte Bozic is Knowledge Exchange Officer for CYCJ. Jill McAfee is Practice Development Advisor, seconded from SCRA.