LONDON, 30 July 2003 - The face of child trafficking to the UK is changing, with children being transported from an increasing number of countries and traffickers widening their operations with new methods and destinations, said UNICEF UK in a new report published today as part of its End Child Exploitation campaign.
The report, Stop the Traffic!, says that hundreds of known cases of trafficked children are just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands may be trafficked to the UK every year, mainly from West Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, but the scale of the problem is hidden by the nature of the crime and by a lack of police statistics. Police have been unable to monitor the situation because trafficking has not been a criminal offence.
Children are being brought to counties and cities all over the UK. In places such as Newcastle and Nottingham, cases have only emerged in recent months, indicating that traffickers are widening their operations, targeting places where the authorities are not aware of the issue.
David Bull, Executive Director of UNICEF UK, said: "Trafficking is a serious abuse of child rights and is the fastest growing business of organised crime, since it is seen as less risky than trafficking drugs.
"Until very recently, trafficking wasn't even illegal and is still only a crime if carried out for sexual exploitation. The Government must criminalise trafficking for all purposes and should introduce central funding for specialist care and protection for the victims."
The Government's Sexual Offences Bill, currently in the House of Commons, makes it illegal to traffic people into the UK for commercial sexual exploitation, but children trafficked for other reasons remain unprotected. UNICEF is urging the Government to close this loophole and make it illegal to traffic a child for any purpose, and should introduce central funding for specialist care including training for immigration officers and social workers, counselling and safe houses. < BR>Unless safe house accommodation is provided, fear will drive children to escape to meet their traffickers and the exploitation will continue. Traffickers use rape, beatings, voodoo and threats of violence against family members to control and intimidate the children, who rarely admit to being trafficked.
A period of reflection of up to six months, with children given leave to remain in the UK, is also vital. This would allow children to receive counselling and be protected from re-trafficking, and would help the police to gather crucial evidence to prosecute traffickers.
Trafficking should not be confused with people smuggling, which takes place with the consent of the travellers. Child trafficking involves the transportation and exploitation of unwilling or unknowing victims, often for sex work.
Children are also forced to work as domestic servants, drug mules, in sweatshops and restaurants, or as beggars or pickpockets. The case of 'Adam', the Nigerian boy's torso found in the River Thames, raised concerns that trafficked children are being used for ritual killing.
There is evidence that increasing numbers of African nationalities are being trafficked to the UK. As well as countries such as Nigeria and Sierra Leone, children are being brought from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Angola, Burundi, Malawi, South Africa, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda.
The West African cultural practice of sending children to live with extended family or friends to be educated or work is being used to mask trafficking. Parents are duped into believing that their child will have a better future.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 children, many from West Africa, are being privately fostered in the UK. Many could be being abused or exploited, without anyone even knowing that they are in the country.
Trafficked children are often treated as commodities. When 12-year-old 'Natasha' (not her real name) fled from her abusive father in Romania, she was repeatedly resold and forced to be a sex worker in Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and Italy. Eventually brought to the UK, for six months she was sexually exploited and beaten by her trafficker before escaping.
Worldwide, over a million children are trafficked each year. UNICEF is working internationally to prevent child exploitation from happening in the first place, but legislation is needed to deal with the crime once committed and to act as a deterrent.
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