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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » What is Child Trafficking?

What is Child Trafficking?

Though not widely spoken about, child trafficking occurs in the UK, with many children being trafficked into the UK from other countries, and children from the UK being illegally transported around the country.

In 2021, there were around 2,000 cases of child trafficking within the UK for the purpose of county lines alone. Between 2020 and 2021, over 4,500 children were reported to be victims of child trafficking through the government’s national referral mechanism.

What is child trafficking?

Child trafficking is a type of human trafficking, and refers to children being illegally procured, relocated and forced into exploitation, usually for labour or sexual exploitation, as outlined by the Palermo Protocol (2000). Anyone who is involved in the recruitment, movement, containment, receipt or the forced labour and exploitation of children illegally is a party to child trafficking.

Children are trafficked for a number of other reasons, including to pose as a child to aid benefit fraud, and for forced marriage, slavery and crime. The Palermo Protocol states that even if a child was aware of why they were being moved and agreed to it, they still haven’t given consent, as they are too young to consent. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 outlines that anyone who has played a role in the facilitation of any part of the movement of another person for exploitation has committed an offence.

Child trafficking can occur between countries, or within one country. Transportation simply means between A and B, regardless of whether the child has crossed a border or not. In fact, according to ECPAT, between 2020 and 2021, 60% of the victims of child trafficking in the UK were of British descent, with the remaining victims being predominantly Vietnamese, Sudanese, Albanian, Romanian, Eritrean, Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi and Nigerian.

Traffickers tend to prey on vulnerable children, offering them things that they may long for, such as food, money, companionship and clothes.

Vulnerable children can have a range of reasons for going missing, thus traffickers can more easily rely on the likelihood of their disappearance being theorised as pertaining to some factor associated with their socio-economic circumstances. Children can also be targeted through false adverts for jobs, through their desperation to make money.

Nowadays, social media has been an extremely targeted tool by traffickers, grooming children online, or using it as a means of control. Teenage girls are often lured into sex slavery through social media.

Girl at risk of child trafficking

What are the types of child trafficking?

Though child trafficking refers to the movement of children for the purpose of exploitation, the umbrella term describes a range of different types of trafficking.

These include:

Forced labour

One of the main aims of child traffickers is forcing children into labour. This can be hard, manual labour, which is when children are required to perform physical acts such as transporting goods and performing other dangerous jobs in highly unsafe environments. They may often have to operate machinery that poses a threat to life, where they could come to significant harm. They may be forced to work in retail or factories, for little to no pay, for companies that pay cash in hand.

Child soldiers

Many children are forced into serving as armed soldiers in conflicts around the world. Both boys and girls are illegally recruited into war to serve on the frontlines, to act as lookouts or even just to be sent into conflicts that they have no chance of surviving.

Whilst many children who become child soldiers have been kidnapped, in some cases, some children voluntarily choose to become a soldier, fearing that this may be their best chance of survival. This is not a commonly cited form of child trafficking in the UK but is extremely prevalent in war-torn countries.

Sexual exploitation

Sex trafficking predominantly affects girls, with up to 94% of victims being thought to be female, although boys are not exempt. Female victims are chosen because within the sex trade there is a high interest in girls, especially young girls. Young girls are procured because, to traffickers, who see them as inanimate objects, they have a long shelf-life. They can be sold and re-sold.

The most vulnerable girls to child sex trafficking are those who are homeless, are immigrants, and come from marginalised communities. Sexual exploitation includes forced sexual acts and child pornography.


Children are often kidnapped to be forced into performing manual and domestic labour akin to the work of slaves. This includes cleaning, cooking and performing servant-like services.

Many children are often beaten and live in poor conditions, with very few resources and amenities. They are often underfed, do not receive education and are not allowed to contact their families. In some cases, children are sold into slavery by their own families, as their families cannot afford to support the children any longer, and they believe that the children will be given a better life.

Debt bondage

This occurs when a child has incurred a debt with an adult (usually fabricated or exaggerated by the adult), and, playing on the child’s guilt or shame, they are told that they need to pay it off. They are then subject to carrying out acts and crimes in order to ‘make up’ for that debt, when, in reality, the perpetrator has no intention of the debt ever being paid off.

County lines

County lines is the term given to describe gangs in the UK forcing children into drug trafficking, with children disappearing for days, weeks, months or indefinitely, travelling between different counties to transport drugs. In 2019, more than 3,000 ‘lines’ were active. This has become one of the leading forms of child exploitation in the UK. Sometimes, children are not just forced to carry drugs, but weapons too.

Organ harvesting

A very profitable and illegal trade is that of organs. Children and adults may be trafficked to be killed for their organs, which are then transplanted into a high-paying customer in need of a healthy organ. This topic tends to be discussed much less than other reasons for trafficking, nevertheless, it remains a growing illegal industry.

What are the signs of child trafficking?

It is important that people are aware of the signs of child trafficking, as many children are voiceless.

A child who has been trafficked may display the following signs:

  • They spend the majority of their time doing domestic work in the house.
  • They are orphaned, or do not live with their family.
  • They do not know much about the place that they reside in.
  • They are not registered with a GP.
  • They do not attend school.
  • They do not socialise with other children.
  • They appear dirty and poorly clothed, and do not own many belongings.
  • They have too much money or not enough money.
  • They might have cuts and bruises from their labour.
  • Their movements and actions are controlled by someone else.
  • They might avoid people they don’t know, and stay away from authorities.
  • They may be spotted with suspicious adults.
  • They do not share much about their personal lives, and if they do, their story may sound rehearsed.
  • They may be found with drugs.
  • They look underfed and malnourished.
Being poorly clothed

What are the causes of child trafficking?

There are a range of factors involved in child trafficking, which make children vulnerable to being tricked and deceived, and even voluntarily leaving their homes.

Some causes of child trafficking may include:


Poverty is one of the leading causes of child trafficking. Child traffickers prey on vulnerable children who are susceptible to being forced into human trade. People in severe poverty usually include migrants who have fled war, persecution and natural disasters. These people may not have any financial means to look after themselves or their families, making them vulnerable to trafficking.


Gender plays a large role in what the child is being trafficked for. Females are far more at risk of being trafficked into the sex trade, due to differing but similar cultural attitudes towards women. In some countries, the birth of a girl isn’t even registered, and if a girl isn’t married early, she could be considered a burden for the family. Boys are more likely to be taken for forced manual labour, crime and to become child soldiers.

Profit and greed

Child trafficking, whilst it is illegal in 158 counties across the world, is still highly profitable for those who play a part in its orchestration. Trafficking means that labour is effectively free or very cheap, and using a child workforce means that they are more easily coerced into doing things that they are told.

Poor education levels and language barriers

Though a child from any background could be at risk of human trafficking, children who come from families who are poorly educated are at a much more significant risk.

A reason for this is that they may be more easily deceived as to what their rights are. Furthermore, a lack of education leads to decreased employability, which essentially leaves people vulnerable to poverty and homelessness. Additionally, if the child and their family have a poor understanding of the language spoken in the country that they are in, they can be more easily deceived.

What are the effects of child trafficking?

Child trafficking can have some incredibly damaging effects on the children involved, which can be long-term or short-term.

Short-term effects of child trafficking may include:

  • Exhaustion. This may be from hours of labour and domestic work.
  • Fatigue. This can be caused by labour, poor sleeping conditions, and malnutrition.
  • Confusion. The child may be unaware of where they are.
  • Immediate distress and separation anxiety. This can be caused because they have been taken from their home suddenly and prevented from seeing their family again.
  • Physical injuries from labour or abuse. They may have marks on their bodies or injuries that they have a rehearsed explanation for.

Long-term effects of child trafficking may include:

  • Depression.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Self-harming.
  • Suicide attempts.
  • Poor education level due to lack of schooling.
  • Poor social skills due to lack of socialising.
  • PTSD due to the conditions and tasks that they have been subject to.
  • Anxiety.
  • Learning difficulties.
  • Aggressive behaviours, mimicking the behaviours they have been subject to themselves, or as a consequence of their emotional distress.
  • Truancy.
  • Guilt.
  • Shame. In some instances, trafficked children can feel as though what has happened to them is their fault.
  • Abusive behaviours.
  • Self-isolation.
  • Poor health.
  • Criminal behaviours.

Effects of sexual exploitation may include:

  • Physical injuries.
  • Sexually transmitted infections and diseases.
  • Pregnancy or past pregnancies.
  • Sexualised behaviours.

Any child who has been subject to trafficking and exploitation will likely need to undergo counselling to support their mental health.

Depression due to past child trafficking

How to report child trafficking

The safeguarding of children remains the top priority for anyone who works with children. They should receive regular and updated training on how to look out for signs of child exploitation, and the procedures to follow if they suspect that it is happening.

If you suspect that a child has been trafficked, or is being forced to carry out exploitative acts, you should call 101, or 999 if you consider it to be an emergency situation. It should be noted that the police will ask for your details, and that if you would like to report a suspicion of child trafficking anonymously, you should call Crimestoppers on 0800555111.

You can also call the Modern Slavery Helpline anonymously on 08000121700 if you have reason to suspect child exploitation.

Barnardo’s help to tackle child trafficking in the UK, running services around the country that work with trafficked children to give them support practically, emotionally and psychologically. They also work with professionals in childcare, education and healthcare to know and identify the signs of child trafficking and exploitation. They have a 24-hour hotline through which you can make a referral.

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About the author

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Rose Winter

Rose is a qualified teacher with six years of experience teaching in secondary schools and sixth forms across London. Before this, she worked as a communications officer in the Cabinet Office. Outside of work, Rose can be found researching topics of interest and spending time abroad.

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