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Survivor-informed support for trafficked children in Scotland

Research examining sustainable support for trafficked children to improve their long-term outcomes.

Published: 11th July 2023

This is a report and a Research Summary from the research project Survivor-informed support for trafficked children in Scotland. The research was conducted by Dr Maggie Grant, Dr Maria Fotopoulou, Scot Hunter, Professor Margaret Malloch, Dr Paul Rigby and Dr Kieran Taylor, all of University of Stirling and funded by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), which in turn is funded and supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).


Improving outcomes for separated children and young people who have experienced human trafficking is a major and urgent challenge facing the UK. While the exploitation experiences and immediate support needs of separated children who have experienced trafficking are well documented in research, the evidence base on what happens in the longer term for children and young people – and how they feel about it – is more limited.

Once children and young people move beyond this stage, the spotlight on them fades. This study sought to extend the timeframe to explore short, medium and long-term experiences of support and recovery. The study directly involved children and young people who had made their homes in the UK, eliciting narratives of recovery with a focus on their choices as well as needs, alongside data recorded by, or gathered from, professionals.

The aim was to improve understanding of what constitutes sustainable support over a longer timeframe, thus offering valuable insights for all those working with this group of children and young people, in the UK and internationally. The number of potential human trafficking victims in the UK is usually recorded by referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

Key findings

  • Young people in Scotland who have experienced trafficking and professionals used various definitions of recovery. They described it as a long, even life-long, process; where one is able and feels confident to make and voice choices; has regained a sense of control; has the ability to think about the future and make plans, as well as acknowledging exploitative experiences. Young people’s accounts highlighted safety, identity, community and autonomy as inter-linked factors that promote recovery.
  • ‘System trauma’, in particular navigating the asylum system, is one of the biggest barriers for young people’s ability to recover following experiences of trafficking. The impact of the asylum process, including being interviewed and waiting for a decision, interferes with nearly all other areas of their lives. Young people and professionals described how feeling safe goes beyond physical safety to include stability provided by familiar routines and regular contact with people they trust, as well as a sense of predictability about the future, free from the insecurity caused by precarious immigration status.
  • Trusting relationships which promote agency and choice are vital. It takes time for young people to build trust in relationships, particularly following experiences of exploitation. Over the long term, these relationships helped children and young people to develop their confidence and knowledge, leading to increased autonomy.
  • Although effective multi-agency working has long been recognised as facilitating better support for young people, this remains an area of concern for professionals. They emphasised the continued need for clear coordination between agencies, specialist training on working with young people who have experienced trafficking and consistency of services across the country.
  • Young people indicated a high degree of satisfaction with the support provided by and through the Scottish Guardianship Service, highlighting activities that provided a structure and that brought them into contact with other people as particularly important.


  • The UK and Scottish Governments must ensure that a child protection framework of support and processes take priority over NRM referrals. OSCE (2022) indicate that any NRM should build on existing national child protection systems, where a child’s best interest is at the centre of decision making in line with state obligations under the UNCRC.
  • The Home Office must ensure that decision making processes are timely. Immigration status is crucial in allowing young people to make plans and organise their lives. Ensuring decision making is timely is imperative to recovery.
  • The Scottish Government and other funding bodies need to ensure that services are properly resourced to provide adequate and appropriate levels of support. Limited provisions work against building trusting relationships and can often impact on the effectiveness of engagement and subsequently longer-term outcomes for young people. Continuity and consistency are vital in establishing trusting relationships as a pre-condition for recovery. The Scottish model of guardianship support for all separated children, regardless of NRM decisions, combined with provision of support post-18 for care experienced young people, provides this. Identification and support in Scotland is not conditional on a positive NRM decision and reflects the importance of the child protection and support framework and process as indicated in the first recommendation.
  • Clear collaborative objectives that over-ride the organisational priorities of any one agency need to be reinforced. Strengths-based practice approaches should be adopted, alongside multi-agency co-ordinated working and integrated responses within the child protection system.
  • Young people require support – including education, financial, accommodation and mental health support – that goes beyond specific services related to trafficking in order to meet their longer-term needs and support longer-term recovery. These are presently available in Scotland under child-care and throughcare and aftercare provisions and professionals need to ensure equal access to services across the country, supported by additional training where necessary. Service outcomes should reflect the priorities of children and young people and their understandings of ‘recovery’.
  • All statutory and non-statutory bodies working with separated and trafficked children need to ensure that the focus remains on children’s needs rather than particular national groups. Professionals have ongoing concerns about the patterns of over-representation of specific nationalities in processes of identification. Ongoing training regarding patterns of arrivals, the importance of assessment within a child protection framework utilising possible trafficking indicators, and the need for a multi-agency response (including cross border) are all important factors regarding the focus on needs.