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Listening to the voices of survivors of child trafficking to improve support

Blog by Kieran Taylor, Maggie Grant and Paul Rigby

Published: 4th April 2022

To understand what works in the long-term for children with experience of modern slavery, we need to listen to them more closely. Blog by Kieran Taylor, Maggie Grant and Paul Rigby.

On last year’s Anti-Slavery Day, the Modern Slavery PEC published a blog by a person with lived experience of modern slavery, it included an important rallying cry:

…it is one thing to be generous to others, it’s another thing to meet the needs of the other, in the way they would like their needs to be met. I think that the only way to meet the need of the one you are trying to help is to communicate effectively with the person you are trying to support. And that means listening.

An individual with lived experience of modern slavery

The needs and perspectives of children and young people who have experienced child trafficking have been traditionally overshadowed by the historically larger number of adult victims identified. How young people, trafficked to the UK, feel about their care is not well understood. Neither is the way in which young survivors’ needs change over time.

For children and young people in Scotland, where the majority of referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) are for non-UK nationals, the policy system is complex. The policies and legislation that shape their lives – where they live, their education, the support they receive, whether they can stay in the UK – are split between the UK Government at Westminster and the Scottish Government at Holyrood. The decision-making authority on whether children are recognised as victims of trafficking is located within the Home Office, but child protection and education are devolved to Scottish Government, and it is local services in Scotland that deliver care and support to children day-to-day. Glasgow City Council are presently one of ten local authorities across the UK involved in a pilot NRM project looking at devolving decision making to local areas.

This multi-level policy system has major implications for individual children. Children who have already been exposed to abuse and exploitation can experience ‘system trauma’ when navigating complex systems of asylum, care and support. Previous research has highlighted that tensions arise in practice as the concerns of child protection and asylum compete. Multi-agency child protection responses must take priority over immigration concerns and the processes and timescales associated with the asylum system. Children affected by trafficking must be treated first and foremost as children, with their best interests the primary consideration.

However, there have been major changes in recent years in services for children affected by trafficking, including positive developments. The Scottish Guardianship Service, established in 2010 to support unaccompanied and trafficked children to navigate the complex systems described earlier, has been praised as an example of good practice. The Scottish Government’s Human Trafficking Strategy is also described as “victim focussed,” emphasising the importance of “recovery” for trafficking victims and recognising the need for appropriate mental health support and trauma sensitive approaches.

Yet the voices of survivors of child trafficking remain largely unheard within policy- and law-making processes. The majority of research evidence to date has focused on experiences of exploitation and immediate short-term support needs, but far less is known about what constitutes sustainable support over a longer timeframe.

Our research seeks to bridge that gap. We aim to find out how young people in Scotland affected by trafficking feel about the support they have received and explore their understandings of how it could be improved. We will do this through interviews and workshops with young people, focusing on how they define ‘recovery’ and how their needs and choices have changed over time. We are building on previous research by extending the timeframe to include children who have been in Scotland for up to 10 years.

By addressing these important questions with young people directly, we hope to develop insight into how young people’s lives unfold over time and build a truly survivor-informed understanding of support. The need for children and young people’s perspectives to inform policy-making and practice has become even more urgent with changes to the National Transfer Scheme. Local authorities with little experience of working with separated children, including those who have been trafficked, are now expected to provide care and support for children being moved to their areas. Our research, therefore, aims to influence policy and practice around child trafficking, not just in Scotland but across the UK, at a critical point in time.

Kieran Taylor, Maggie Grant and Paul Rigby are researchers at the University of Stirling. They lead the Modern Slavery PEC research project, with Maria Fotopoulou and Margaret Malloch, into the views of child trafficking survivors in Scotland.