There’s a catastrophe happening right here, right now in the UK and across Europe.
Thousands of children are being raped, sold into sexual slavery, forced into a life of crime or have simply disappeared – and much of that is happening in plain sight. No one knows how many because no government agencies have been able to count them.
Médecins Sans Frontières has confirmed that children as young as 12 are being systematically exploited, either sexually or into a life of crime, by gangs in migrant camps in Calais and Dunkirk. These children are then smuggled into ports on the English coast.
UNICEF claims that traffickers in France are charging as much as £5,000 for children to be spirited across the English Channel. Once they enter the UK, they become debt slaves at the mercy of native gangs across England and Wales.
SharedVision is committed to highlighting the plight of these children who are often unaccompanied after their families pay for their passage away from war and extreme violence, poverty, drought and starvation.
And the numbers are jaw dropping. Arrivals by sea into Europe in 2015: 1,015,078 people, including 265,388 children.
Once a percentage of these young people finally arrive in Britain, life can become an ordeal every bit as traumatic as their original journey across the Mediterranean.
Gwenton Sloley, ex gang leader turned government advisor on gangs, is deeply involved in trying to reach out to these children:
“There are a generation of young people being smuggled into ports across England who then simply disappear, unregistered, unseen. Many end up in the inner cities on false passports provided by gang leaders who lie about their ages to social services.
“These young people are told to pretend they’re younger than they really are. They’ve not got any supervision by parents or anyone checking up on them. They become very attractive to gangs, drug dealers and crime bosses. They’re told to pretend to be 11 years old – or whatever age they’re bullied into saying when they’re smuggled into the country.
“Once they’re over 18 they’re completely lost to the system. They’re put up in houses around the country, drug dealing. So what we have is young people trafficking other young people – young people who are legally allowed to be in the country trafficking other young people who are not legally allowed to be here.”
“The only time these youngsters come to the notice of anyone is when they start to echo the violence that has been happening in their home countries. People then start asking questions and realise that there are rising levels of violence now happening on the streets.
“Until these people are in court after drug dealing or stabbing someone, no one knows they exist. People in authority suddenly realise they don’t know their ages, their real names, nothing.
“Only when you begin to unravel everything you start asking questions such as where are the parents of this young person? No one has carried out any checks as to who this young person is. “
Rachel Maloney, social work, has spent her career working with vulnerable young people:
“Working for two years on the project for safe accommodation we recognised that if we didn’t get the kids early enough – didn’t get them into specialised foster care or some kind of safe specialist supported accommodation – they would be ripe pickings for the gangs. They would often be re-trafficked, particularly around the Southeast and Kent.
“The gangs in Kent would pick up these really vulnerable young people and be their best friends, giving them a sense of belonging, and the next thing you know they’re running the county lines with drugs, working in cannabis factories or unregulated nail bars, and being sexually exploited. The system is fractured and we need a national co-ordinated response to this issue that holds services accountable for protecting those young people.
“There’s a huge controversy about the age assessment process. A child who comes over and is assessed as 16 years or above won’t automatically get the opportunity of foster care; they are more likely to be placed in supported accommodation or semi independent accommodation.
“The majority of these children have faced severe trauma and then they’re simply expected to go into an environment where they’ve got to get on with life without any kind of specialist therapy or support . So they’re very vulnerable. Unless specialist foster care or supported accommodation is used, the traffickers can easily find out where they are. The issues are multi-layered, but we have to remember that a child’s a child and should be protected.
Marisa De Jager, social work and champion of children’s rights:
“They’re displaying more violence on the street as a result of trauma, especially with trafficked survivors. So we’re not protecting abused and traumatised children because we don’t provide the provision for them to maintain their social development.
“What does the system do about it?
“We have to get these young people help at the first opportunity. We need to understand what their needs are no matter what the age. Ages 0-25 are covered by legislation. Care Act, Children and Families act.
“We need to identify them and give them safety. Where are the role models? We need to build long-term relationships in the community – in a new society where they need to belong. Who’s providing that?”
For many professionals, the serious social problems that have helped the rise of children sold into slavery and crime is a failure of leadership on a national level. There is little done to co-ordinate these issues nationally and locally. government departments have little co-ordination with each other. Likewise, charities and NGOs.
Perpetrators are often able to do what they want with vulnerable young people. This has to be made a less attractive proposition. If the system protected young people effectively, gang bosses and traffickers would not try to get away with it.
Young people also need real, viable options that do not include being affiliated to a gang or trafficker. This needs to be a whole-system approach, which includes police, health and social care. Therapeutic interventions are not fit for purpose for managing traumatised children. They need safe spaces to talk about it with people who really understand it and can help them believe there’s a way out.
Leadership is in short supply right now, but this has to change. This is the biggest issue facing the nation – and the time to act is now.
The Home Office estimates that there are between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of modern-day slavery in the UK.
Estimates suggest that there could be 100 children trafficked every week into the UK. Albanian and Nigerian females, including adults, make up the largest groups being referred to agencies as potential victims.
The National Crime Agency has reported a 34% rise in potential trafficking victims in 2014 compared with a year earlier. Adults are predominantly victims of sexual exploitation, while minors are exploited for labour.
Nearly 25% of all trafficking victims are children.
Agencies report that victims are being sold on, along with their debt, for as much as £30,000, to other traffickers for multiple exploitation, including sex trafficking, domestic servitude and cannabis cultivation.
Of the trafficked children who have disappeared, the NSPCC reported in its 2012 all-party parliamentary group report that 58% were being exploited for criminal activity and cannabis cultivation.
Andrew Chilvers was talking to Nigel Boulton, Marisa De Jager, Rachel Maloney and Gwenton Sloley