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United Kingdom

Rescuing victims of child sex trafficking in the United Kingdom

© UNICEF UK/2008/Ayisi
Margaret (left), who was trafficked from Africa to the United Kingdom, talks to Elaine Burling, an adviser who accompanied her for her UNICEF interview.

By Ruth Ayisi

LONDON, United Kingdom, 2 January 2009 – Margaret (not her real name) was brought to the UK by a trafficker who promised her a better life. She was told that there was a family in the UK that was interested in caring for her. But when she arrived in the country, she was sold as a prostitute to an older man.

“He seriously abused me to such an extent that I thought I was going to die. I was suffering from malaria, but I told him I had AIDS. He got angry, as he’d paid a lot of money for me. He got scared and drove me somewhere and left me,” she recalls.

Now 21-year-old Margaret is an advocate for the better treatment of children and young people who have been trafficked and sold into sexual abuse in the United Kingdom.

“I was there once,” she says. “I know what support they need and how it has affected them.”

‘They share a strong bond’

Margaret was found by police and subsequently held in a detention centre for two weeks. She then received help from the Refugee Council, which assisted her with accommodations and legal advice. Today, Margaret is finding that the best way to heal from her ordeal is to meet with other young women who have suffered a similar fate.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) brings such young people together through the Child Trafficking Advice and Information Line. They travel every three months to meet each other at the NSPCC offices.

“Margaret is brilliant with the other members of the group,” says Mandy John-Baptiste, the manager of the project. “Aside from these formal meetings, the young women often arrange to meet up with each other socially. They share a strong bond.”

The young people also advise the social workers and researchers who participate in the sessions – many of whom have never visited the home countries of the young people and thus have a limited understanding of cultural sensitivities. NSPCC also offers therapeutic assistance to children and adolescents.

More in need of support

Yet only a few of the children and young people who are trafficked to the UK receive such support.

Just over seven years ago, the public was ignorant that child trafficking for sexual abuse was a serious problem here. UNICEF and other organizations lobbied the government to take urgent action.

“This culminated in the Sexual Offences Act in 2004; it was a major milestone,” explains UNICEF Officer for Public Affairs Dragan Nastic. “Offenders can now be severely punished.”

Although several trafficking gangs have since been investigated, only about 100 convictions have been made, because many potential witnesses are reluctant to step forward.

UNICEF also advocates for trafficked children to have the same rights as British children while they remain in the UK, as police can still lock them in detention centres after being rescued from their abusers. And their fate is decided by judges who do not always adequately take into account each child’s or young person’s unique circumstances.

“We’re not saying that they all have to stay here in England. Some of them want to go home,” says Ms. John-Baptiste. “This a child protection issue. Each child must be assessed. And we must find out where they will go – and to who – once they return, as many of them could find themselves being re-trafficked.”

Rebuilding a life

Margaret’s visa comes up for renewal soon. In the meantime, with the support of social services and organizations like NSPCC, she has been able to rebuild her life.

Despite being orphaned, having little formal education and living a life of extreme poverty, Margaret has made some great strides. She is the only student in her course to pass her national vocational qualification with distinction. In addition to her studies, Margaret works in a hospital.

“I am good at caring for people, as I looked after my mother when she was sick,” she says.

The income from the hospital has given Margaret the chance to make a home for herself. Yet, her future remains uncertain.

“If I’m deported, I have to leave all this,” she says. “It would feel like I have lost a mother again.”



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