Protecting children from trafficking and modern slavery

Last updated: 29 May 2020

Child trafficking is child abuse. It's defined as recruiting, moving, receiving and harbouring children for the purpose of exploitation (HM Department for Education (DfE) and Home Office, 2011; Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Police Service of Northern Ireland, 2011; Scottish Government, 2013; Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board, 2020).

Child trafficking is a form of modern slavery (HM Government, 2014).

Many children are trafficked into the UK from overseas, but children can also be trafficked from one part of the UK to another.

Children are trafficked for:

  • child sexual exploitation
  • criminal activity, including:
    • cannabis cultivation
    • street crime - such as pickpocketing, begging and bag theft
    • moving drugs
    • benefit fraud
    • immigration fraud
    • selling pirated goods, such as DVDs
  • forced marriage
  • domestic servitude, including:
    • cleaning
    • childcare 
    • cooking
  • forced labour, including working in:
    • restaurants
    • nail bars
    • factories
    • agriculture
  • illegal adoption
  • unreported private fostering arrangements (for any exploitative purpose).

This list is not exhaustive and children who are trafficked are often exploited in more than one way.

How child trafficking happens

Traffickers may use grooming techniques to gain the trust of a child, family or community. They may trick, force or persuade children to leave their homes.

Child trafficking can involve a network of organised criminals who recruit, transport and exploit children and young people within or across borders. Some people in the network might not be directly involved in trafficking a child but play a part in other ways – such as falsifying documents, bribery, owning or renting premises, or money laundering (Europol, 2011).

Child trafficking can also be organised by individuals and children's own families.


Impact of child trafficking

Effects on children

Being trafficked is abuse in itself. But trafficked children may experience other forms of abuse and neglect that impact on their physical and mental health and social and emotional development. These include:

Impacts of child trafficking and exploitation include:

  • poor health and illness, which may be left untreated
  • limited or no access to education
  • physical and mental exhaustion.

Children may also experience emotional challenges, such as missing family, friends, communities and cultures. This can lead to:

  • feeling isolated and lonely
  • disturbed sleep patterns
  • depression and/or anxiety
  • headaches
  • panic attacks
  • eating difficulties
  • self-harm and suicidal thoughts
  • drug and alcohol use as a means to escape from problems
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

(Jamieson, 2018; Pearce, Hynes and Bovarnick, 2009).


Recognising child trafficking

Signs and indicators

Children who are trafficked are intentionally hidden and isolated from the services and communities who can identify and protect them. While identification may be difficult, there will be signs that you can watch for.

Children who have been trafficked or are at risk of being trafficked may:

  • have to do excessive housework chores
  • rarely leave the house and have limited freedom of movement
  • not have any documents (or have falsified documents)
  • give a prepared story which is very similar to stories given by other children
  • be unable or reluctant to give details of accommodation or personal details
  • not be registered with a school or a GP practice
  • have a history with missing links and unexplained moves
  • be cared for by adults who are not their parents or carers
  • not have a good quality relationship with their adult carers
  • be one among a number of unrelated children found at one address 
  • receive unexplained or unidentified phone calls whilst in a care placement or temporary accommodation

(Department for Education and Home Office, 2011).

Signs an adult may be trafficking a child include:

  • making multiple visa applications for different children
  • acting as a guarantor for multiple visa applications for children
  • having previously acted as the guarantor on visa applications for visitors who have not left the UK when the visa expired

(Department for Education and Home Office, 2011).

Risks and vulnerability factors

Boys and girls of all ages can be victims of trafficking. Children who have been trafficked may be from the UK or another country.

Children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking if they come from an area where:

  • there is poverty
  • there is or has recently been a war
  • education levels are low
  • there is discrimination or persecution
  • there is political conflict and economic uncertainty

(Department for Education and Home Office, 2011; Europol, 2011).

Generally, human trafficking happens because of:

  • demand for cheap or free labour
  • inequalities between countries – such as different education or employment opportunities
  • a lack of equal opportunities, discrimination or abuse

(Europol, 2011).


Responding to child trafficking

Child trafficking is child abuse. It requires a child protection, multi-agency response in line with current legislation.

Our Stop child trafficking and slavery in its tracks leaflets (NSPCC, 2015) provide detailed information about responding to the signs of child trafficking, with advice tailored for:

  • carers
  • education workers 
  • frontline health professionals and health visitors 
  • police 
  • social workers
  • immigration officials and border force
  • youth justice practitioners.


If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice. 
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in. 
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse


When speaking to a child who has been trafficked:

  • offer reassurance, explain that you can help them and that it's safe for them to talk to you
  • explain to the child that they've done nothing wrong
  • remember that accompanying adults may not be parents or have the authority to care for the child
  • speak with the child directly, without the accompanying adult present (this could put the child at further risk)
  • if an interpreter is required, it's good practice to avoid using an interpreter from the same area in the country of origin as the victim. This reduces any perceived link the child may make between the interpreter and known people in their country of origin.

Understanding child trafficking as abuse

Children who have been trafficked may not see themselves as victims. They may find it hard to understand that what's happening is abuse - especially if they've been groomed.

Children may think they played a part in their abuse or that they're guilty of breaking the law.

Talking about their experiences

Children who have been trafficked may find it difficult to tell anyone what's happened to them. They may also tell their stories with obvious errors, inconsistencies or a lack of reality. Some traffickers compose stories for victims to learn in case they are approached by the authorities.

Children may feel guilty or ashamed about the abuse they've suffered. They may also be too scared to speak out, frightened of:

  • all adults and authorities
  • what will happen to themselves, their friends and their family
  • judgement from their community and families
  • being prosecuted for a crime
  • being returned to their home country, where their situation may be even worse
  • the effects of Juju or witchcraft rituals that were performed during their experiences.

If a child is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they may have difficulty recalling details or have blanks in their memory.

National referral mechanism (NRM)

The National referral mechanism (NRM) is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and ensuring they receive appropriate support. Guidance and forms for the NRM are available for each UK nation from the Home Office (Home Office, 2010).

Initial referrals to the NRM must be handled by an authorised agency. These "first responders" include police forces; the National Crime Agency; UK Border Force; UK Visas and Immigration; and local authorities. They complete a full referral form and pass this to the Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Unit.

Referrals to the NRM are not compulsory but if the potential victim of trafficking is a child, the referral can be made without their consent.

Independent Child Trafficking Guardians (ICTG)

In England and Wales the Home Office funds the Independent Child Trafficking Guardian (ICTG) service. The service  provides an independent source of support and advice for trafficked children who are without a figure of parental responsibility in the UK (Home Office, 2019).

ICTG direct workers advocate on behalf of the child to ensure  their best interests are reflected in decision-making processes.

ICTG regional practice coordinators have a more strategic role, consulting with and advising local professionals who are already supporting trafficked children to ensure that the child’s best interests are prioritised.

Multi-agency framework

We have developed the International Multi Agency Assessment Framework (IMAAF), which is included in chapter six of its Free to move, invisible to care report (Hurley, John-Baptiste and Pande, 2015). This helps professionals assess children who have been or are being moved across geographical borders.

The tool helps professionals decide which agencies to work with to establish, assess and investigate a child’s situation (including agencies from the country a child comes from and their destination country). It does not replace statutory frameworks or guidance around child protection.

The IMAAF helps work out:

  • why the child is here
  • who they are with
  • what countries they’ve travelled from or through
  • what their living situation is in their home country.

It includes factors to consider both for the child and the adult connected to the child.

Feedback from a range of agencies suggests that the IMAAF can help social workers to be robust in their information-gathering for children crossing borders (Hurley, John-Baptiste and Pande, 2015).


Preventing child trafficking

Child trafficking and modern slavery are complex global crimes requiring international and local action to combat them. The hidden nature of these crimes makes it difficult to identify victims, grasp the scale of the problem and develop effective responses.

Long term prevention requires:

  • addressing global socio-economic inequality
  • improving public and professional understanding and awareness of trafficking and modern slavery
  • making trafficking and modern slavery an unprofitable business
  • reducing the demand for trafficked and enslaved children.

Working together across borders

Professionals must make sure children who move to the UK from overseas are safe and well.

They should work together at an international level to identify and support vulnerable children who are at risk of trafficking and modern slavery, including:

  • cross-border investigations and assessments
  • liaising with social welfare services overseas.

If children are sent back to their country of origin, cross-border professionals must work together to:

  • protect them from traffickers
  • put plans in place for their long-term safety.

Information sharing between organisations and agencies is key to this process.

> See our guidance on information sharing

Training for professionals who work with children and young people

To identify and support children who have come to the UK from overseas, professionals need training and professional development which covers:

  • the impact of migration and displacement on children and young people
  • approaches to working with migrant and asylum seeking children, and children who have been trafficked
  • information on safeguarding and child protection issues in other parts of the world
  • up-to-date information on legislation, policy and guidance on trafficking and modern slavery.
Direct work

Direct work with children who have experienced trafficking

Supporting a child who has been trafficked

When a child has been identified as a victim of trafficking they need to be appropriately protected and supported.

When supporting a child you should:

  • prioritise child protection concerns over immigration concerns
  • apply for immediate emergency protection if necessary
  • offer reassurance and explain in a child-friendly manner:
    • what help you can offer
    • what you can and can't do
    • the roles and responsibilities of different agencies
  • acknowledge a child's religious, spiritual or cultural belief as this will help to gain their trust
  • record all details for the child and any accompanying adults, including names and addresses of relatives overseas and share these with the relevant authorities
  • make sure the child has access to independent immigration advice from someone who is fully qualified. It is against the law for someone who is not qualified to give immigration advice (Section 84.)
  • make a referral to your local child protection services and the police, who can take action to protect the child.

Do not raise your trafficking concerns directly with any accompanying adults as this could put the child at further risk.

The police and local child protection services can:

  • find a safe place for the child to live
  • hold a child protection strategy meeting involving children's services, police, education, health and immigration
  • establish the identity of adults in the child's life - for example, by checking with the Department for Work and Pensions to see who is claiming benefits for the child
  • use police powers of protection to either remove a child to a safe place or prevent the child's removal from a safe place, such as a hospital
  • connect with agencies across borders and in other countries, including the child's country of origin and any others they have passed through before coming to the UK
  • carry out a legally compliant age assessment if there is any doubt about the child's age.

If a child who has been trafficked is placed in local authority care, there is a strong possibility they may go missing. It’s vital to plan for this in advance – make sure you have details that can be quickly circulated to highlight that a vulnerable child at risk of further abuse is missing.

Multi-agency working

Child trafficking requires a multi-agency child protection response, irrespective of the child's immigration status or whether they have been involved with criminal activity (NSPCC, 2015).

Multi-agency working helps provide a timely and appropriate response to children who may have multiple and complex needs. It is essential that the police, local authority and immigration services share information and collaborate in order to protect the child and prosecute the traffickers.

> Find out how to improve multi-agency working

Legislation and guidance

Legislation and guidance

All four governments in the UK publish guidance to help professionals identify and respond to a child who may have been trafficked.


The Modern slavery awareness and victim identification guidance (PDF) (Home Office, 2017) is non-statutory guidance to help those in the public sector across the UK recognise and respond to modern slavery.

In England, Care of unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery (PDF) (Department for Education, 2017) is statutory guidance for local authorities and professionals. Safeguarding children who may have been trafficked (PDF) (Department for Education and Home Office, 2011) is supplementary, non-statutory guidance meant to be used alongside Working together to safeguard children (PDF) (Department for Education, 2018), which is statutory.

In Northern Ireland, Working arrangements for the welfare and safeguarding of child victims of human trafficking (PDF) (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 2011) sets out the actions to be taken by the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Health and Social Care Trusts (HSCT) in relation to lone or unaccompanied children, children in the care of an unsuitable adult and children who are recovered during police operations where there is reasonable cause to believe that the child may the victim of trafficking.

In Scotland, Safeguarding children in Scotland who may have been trafficked (PDF) (Scottish Government, 2009) and Inter-agency guidance for child trafficking (PDF) (Scottish Government, 2013) provide agencies and professionals with guidance to ensure that they can identify, assess and support the needs of children who may have been trafficked.

In Wales, the All Wales Practice Guide: Safeguarding children who may be trafficked helps practitioners from all agencies effectively safeguard children who have been, or are at risk of being, trafficked (Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board, 2020).

Key legislation

Across the UK, legislation highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from trafficking.

Protecting potential victims of child trafficking

Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 sets out a duty in all four UK nations to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who come to the UK.

In England and Wales, the Trafficking People for Exploitation Regulations 2013 makes provision to:

  • protect trafficked children from criminal investigations
  • ensure trafficked children are eligible for "special measures" to assist and protect witnesses, for example making sure interviews are carried out by specially trained professionals in specially designed premises.

Part 5 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 also includes measures to protect potential victims of child trafficking in criminal proceedings.

In Northern Ireland, Section 21 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 offers protection to potential victims of child trafficking in criminal investigations and gives trafficked children and young people up to the age of 21 the right to an independent legal guardian.

In Scotland, Part 2 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 includes protection for trafficked children under the age of 18 in criminal proceedings and provides for an independent child trafficking guardian to assist, support and represent child victims.


  • Sections 109-110 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 allow a UK national to be prosecuted for committing the crime of trafficking in any country of the world. It also criminalises trafficking within the UK for non-sexual exploitation.

In addition:

Measures to prevent trafficking

England and Wales

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 sets out measures to prevent slavery and human trafficking. In July 2018, the government announced an independent review of the Act to ensure it’s keeping up with the way the crime is evolving.

  • Part 1 clarifies the existing offences of slavery and human trafficking and increases the maximum penalty for such offences to life imprisonment.
  • Part 2 permits a chief officer of police, immigration officers or the National Crime Agency to make a request to prevent foreign travel of an individual when there’s a risk they may commit a slavery or human trafficking offence, to protect potential victims and prevent further offences.
  • Part 3 provides for new maritime enforcement powers - including ships in England and Wales waters, foreign waters and international waters. This part of the Act also applies in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
  • Part 4 establishes the office and functions of the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, to encourage good practice in:
    • the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of slavery and human trafficking offences
    • the identification of victims of those offences.
      This part of the Act also applies in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
  • Part 5 includes measures to protect potential victims of child trafficking in criminal proceedings
  • Part 6 requires certain businesses to disclose the activities they are undertaking to eliminate slavery and trafficking from their supply chains and their own business.

Northern Ireland

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 makes provision about human trafficking, slavery and other forms of exploitation, including measures to prevent and combat exploitation and provide support for victims.

  • Part 1 describes the offences of slavery and human trafficking.
  • Part 2 describes exploitation offences not included in part 1 - including forced marriage.
  • Part 3 provides for assistance and support for victims of trafficking.
  • Part 4 provides protection for slavery and trafficking victims in criminal investigations and proceedings.

The Act includes provision for a possible sentence of life imprisonment for those convicted of human trafficking or slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.

Parts 3 and 4 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 apply to Northern Ireland.


The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 makes provisions about human trafficking and slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour, including provisions about offences and sentencing and victim support.

  • Part 1 describes the offences of human trafficking.
  • Part 2 outlines protection for child trafficking victims in criminal proceedings.
  • Part 3 gives police and courts in Scotland the power to confiscate and seize property used for human trafficking.
  • Part 4 covers trafficking exploitation prevention and risk orders – including prohibiting foreign travel by an individual seen as being at risk of committing an offence of trafficking.
  • Part 5 outlines the Scottish Ministers’ task to prepare and regularly review a trafficking and exploitation strategy.

The Act includes provision for a possible sentence of life imprisonment for those convicted of human trafficking, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.

Parts 3 and 4 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 apply to Scotland.

International policy and guidance

The Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children (United Nations Human Rights Office, 2000) was ratified by the UK government in 2006. It requires each nation to establish comprehensive domestic criminal offences, policies, programmes and other measures to:

  • prevent trafficking
  • ensure victims are protected and provided with assistance
  • support international cooperation in investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases
  • punish traffickers.

The Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings (HM Government, 2012) is an international treaty focused on protecting victims of trafficking, safeguarding their rights, preventing trafficking and prosecuting traffickers. It was ratified by the UK in 2008 and came into force in 2009.

In 2011, the UK opted into Directive 2011/36/EU (European Commission, 2011) on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims.

Keep up to date with new legislation and guidance by signing up to CASPAR, our current awareness service for policy, practice and research.

References and resources

References and resources

Department for Education (DfE) and Home Office (2011) Safeguarding children who may have been trafficked: practice guidance (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE) and Home Office.

Department for Education (DfE) (2017) Care of unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery: statutory guidance for local authorities (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and Police Service of Northern Ireland (2011) Working arrangements for the welfare and safeguarding of child victims of human trafficking (PDF). [Belfast]: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Northern Ireland.

European Commission (2011) Directive 2011/36/EU (PDF). [Accessed 31/07/2018]

Europol (2011) Knowledge product: trafficking in human beings in the European Union (PDF). The Hague: Europol.

HM Government (2012) Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings: Warsaw, 26 May 2005 (PDF). [Accessed 31/07/2018]

HM Government (2014) Modern slavery strategy (PDF). London: HM Government.

Home Office (2019) Interim guidance for Independent Child Trafficking Guardians early adopter sites. [Accessed 13/11/2020].

Home Office (2010) Modern slavery victims: referral and assessment forms. [Accessed 09/09/2019].

Home Office (2017). Modern slavery awareness and victim identification guidance (PDF). [London]: Home Office.

Hurley, B., John-Baptise, M., and Pande, S. (2015) International multi agency assessment framework (IMAAF). In: Free to move, invisible to care: coordination and accountability towards Romanian unaccompanied minors’ safety. NSPCC: London. pp. 57-71.

Jamieson, C. (2018) Uprooted and unprotected: experiences of children forced into migration through northern France and a multi-agency approach to safeguarding them. London: NSPCC.

Pearce, J.J., Hynes, P., and Bovarnick, S. (2009) Breaking the wall of silence: practitioners' responses to trafficked children and young people. London: NSPCC.

Scottish Government (2009) Safeguarding children in Scotland who may have been trafficked (PDF). [Edinburgh]: Scottish Government.

Scottish Government (2013) Inter-agency guidance for child trafficking: child trafficking assessment national referral mechanism (PDF). Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.

United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (2000) Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children. [Accessed 31/07/2018].

Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board (2020) All Wales Practice Guide: Safeguarding children who may be trafficked. [Accessed 06/08/2020]

Support for children and young people

Childline provides information and advice for young people affected by trafficking and other forms of abuse.

Further reading

For further reading about child trafficking, search the NSPCC Library using the keyword "child trafficking".

If you need more specific information, please contact the Information Service.