Between 80 and 249 children may have been trafficked into Scotland over the past two years.
That is the damning finding of a report published by Tam Baillie, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People (SCCYP).
"When children are sold, or stolen, or simply taken off the street and transported thousands of miles, it is an international scandal," Mr Baillie says. "When children are raped or exploited as slaves in households or `businesses' in Scotland, it becomes our national scandal."
The report finds that, since 2007, children trafficked into Scotland have been used for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, street crime and cannabis cultivation in areas including Leith, Fife, Falkirk, Prestwick, Dundee, Glasgow and Elgin.
The reasons speak to a global problem that is "insidious, dynamic and complex - and grossly underestimated", according to Joy Ngozie Ezeilo, UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons.
Addressing delegates at an SCCYP conference on child trafficking, held in Edinburgh last month, Detective Chief Superintendent Stephen Whitelock of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, admitted there were "elements of child trafficking in Scotland but a gap in knowledge as to how to address it".
SCCYP's report unearths myriad reasons for this gap. It cites the complexity of trafficking legislation, a "cumbersome" referral system, difficulties in gathering accurate evidence, the unwillingness of victims to identify themselves, and under-resourcing of police investigations. The true number of children who have been trafficked may be far higher than SCCYP's estimate, but with cases being overlooked and the lack of a uniform method of collecting data, it is hard to gauge accurately.
Thus far, there have been no convictions for trafficking in Scotland, compared to more than 100 in the rest of the UK - a disparity that prompted the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland to launch its inquiry into human trafficking earlier this year. Headed by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, the inquiry will assess the extent to which Scotland is meeting international and domestic human rights obligations to prohibit trafficking, prosecute traffickers, and protect its victims.
"We will consider whether recommendations on prevention, prohibition, prosecution and protection are necessary - and ensure human rights are at the centre of Scotland's anti-trafficking policy and practice," Baroness Kennedy said. There is a suspicion that Scotland has a "disproportionate share" of the human trafficking trade, added Scotland's Commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission Morag Alexander.
In the public mind, trafficking is most often associated with prostitution. Only a few weeks ago, a 16-year-old Romanian girl was rescued by police from suspected traffickers from a brothel in Govanhill, Glasgow. But there is growing evidence of many other types of abuse, with an increasing number of young men and boys being trafficked for forced labour, particularly in the agricultural sector.
Experts at the SCCYP conference reported that children in residential and private foster care were at particular risk of grooming by traffickers. The abuse of trafficked children can be socially camouflaged within families and businesses - but again, there is little robust data available.
Into the knowledge vacuum around child trafficking flow myths and cultural prejudice. Victims are frequently assumed to be young children, whereas they are more likely to be young adolescents; it is commonly and mistakenly viewed as an urban problem that could not happen in rural areas because of the "local knowledge" of small communities; and there is a presumption that trafficking is an immigration issue when in fact it can occur internally, both within the UK and Scotland.
These are just a few aspects of the "multi-faceted problem" police have to address, says Rebecca Wallace of the Centre for Rural Childhood at Perth College, who led the research for SCCYP.
"There is the difficulty of gathering evidence, and the fact that we don't fully understand the relationship between the trafficked child and trafficker," she says.
"There's also a lack of awareness of indicators (of child trafficking). A further complication is that although an offence may be committed by the child, it is the child who is the victim." The law is a "band aid" that does not address root causes, Professor Wallace adds.
Schools may have a role to play in understanding those root causes better. It is an elusive subject for the sector, because trafficked children are rarely thought to be registered in education services. That does not mean, however, that teachers, youth workers and local authority staff cannot find ways to raise awareness - and themselves be vigilant for signs of trafficking.
"Schools and educators can play a key role," Jonathan Todres, professor of law at Georgia State University and an international expert on child rights, told TESS.
"We know that one of the best ways to reduce a child's vulnerability to exploitation is to keep him or her in school. This is especially true for girls. In addition, educators are often well-positioned to identify marginalised children who might be at risk of being trafficked."
Tam Baillie, whose recent consultation project, A Right Blether, involved visiting schools and taking soundings from more than 74,000 young people on their priorities, says discussion of children's rights is one route into the issue.
"We can often underestimate children's capacity to comprehend what we might initially think are complex issues, like global citizenship and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child," he says.
"One of the things that strikes me is that children get the idea of rights quite quickly. If you explain in straightforward language the right to a good education, for example - which trafficked children are often denied - primary school children can understand that."
It is vital that the teaching workforce also "understands and embraces" the concept of children's rights, he adds.
Elizabeth Lawson, a legal researcher and a member of the research team that produced the SCCYP report, says it is important to convey to school pupils the "through line" between the sale of counterfeit goods and child trafficking.
In the UK, the counterfeit goods market - made up of products such as clothes, handbags and DVDs - is estimated to be worth pound;1.3 billion. Of this, pound;900 million is channelled to organised crime, according to the 2006 Rogers review into national enforcement priorities for local authority regulatory services.
"The same criminal gangs who are committing these crimes are also involved in child trafficking and the profits made from counterfeit goods helps to keep them operating and recruiting," says Miss Lawson. "It is certainly not a victimless crime."
In her book, Deluxe: How luxury lost its lustre, Dana Thomas describes meeting children who had been trafficked to work in illegal factories that produce these goods: "I remember walking into an assembly plant in Thailand and seeing six or seven little children, all under 10 years' old, sitting on the floor assembling counterfeit handbags. An investigator told me that the owners had broken the children's legs and tied the lower leg to the thigh so the bones wouldn't mend. (They) did it because the children said they wanted to go outside to play."
It can be difficult to get the message across that by purchasing counterfeit goods of any kind, young people are in some small way supporting these practices - but all those working in education must try, says Miss Lawson.
Cora Bissett, whose play about trafficking, Roadkill, was performed at the 2010 Edinburgh International Fringe, says that expressive arts, such as drama, could be used to encourage young people to empathise with the plight of children who have been trafficked.
"Using role plays and creating short dramas based on these children's lives makes it a personal story which young people can relate to, rather than an `issue' out there which has no bearing on their life," she says.
Miss Bissett hopes that workshops based on Roadkill could be part of an education programme for schools in the future.
Awareness of child trafficking among those who work with young people may still be worryingly shallow, but there are signs that it is being given more priority at Scottish, UK and international levels.
Launched last November, the Scottish Guardianship Service, run by children's charity Aberlour Child Care Trust and the Scottish Refugee Council, and backed by the Scottish Government, supports unaccompanied asylum-seeking and trafficked children and young people. The service aims to give separated children and adults newly arrived in Scotland an independent advocate who will act as a link between all services and professionals involved in their life.
About one child a week arrives at the offices of the Scottish Refugee Council in Glasgow, and the number is growing. "We are seeing an increase in the number of young people we work with coming forward to disclose that they have been trafficked," said Clare Tudor, the organisation's children's policy officer. "Very often they have been subjected to horrifying and systematic abuse and brutally exploited."
Trafficking was still a "hidden problem" but the increase in young people approaching them was due to growing understanding of it and the signs to look out for, she added.
In March, the UK Government opted in to the new EU Directive on Human Trafficking, which aims to create common, Europe-wide legislation, impose harsher penalties against traffickers and require member states to provide witness protection to victims.
Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children's Society charity, said the decision could be a "significant step forward in making sure that child victims are given the protection they desperately need".
But other campaigners think a more profound shift in policy is required.
Holding perpetrators of child trafficking accountable is essential, says Professor Todres, but if governments focus only on the prosecution of perpetrators and victim assistance, then they are dealing with the harm after it occurs.
"It is essential that we `move upstream' to focus on prevention and address the individual and structural issues that both make children vulnerable to trafficking and drive demand for the services of trafficked children," he says.
Christine Beddoe, of the charity End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes UK, said that the National Referral Mechanism, set up in 2009 to improve arrangements for children who are potentially victims of child trafficking, was "fundamentally flawed" and that the burden of proof should be changed when investigating potential trafficking cases.
"The burden should not be on the child to prove they've been trafficked, it should be on whether you can conclusively see the child has not been," she says. The growth in trafficking over the past two decades signals the "commodification" of children, she added.
In the face of this, it is essential for those who work with children to try to understand their perspective, says Professor Wallace of Perth College. "We need to remember that children are not a homogenous group. Every child is an individual and has rights," she says.
Globalisation and growth in inequality of income have changed the nature of supply, so that more children are being made "available", says Myria Vassiliadou, the EU's Anti-Trafficking Coordinator.
The public must be alert to the "commonplace" nature of trafficking, she says. "It can take place next door to you, and we need to attack the supply chain. This is a fight against modern slavery."
`A lonely and anonymous experience'
Children's Commissioner's key recommendations from the report:
- UK Government should appoint an independent Human Trafficking Rapporteur, accountable to the UK Parliament;
- Scottish Government should act as the lead to ensure that nationally- agreed procedures are being followed consistently at a local level by local authorities;
- Local authorities in Scotland should designate a lead manager on child trafficking;
- Police should investigate all cases of suspected child trafficking without delay and without waiting for the victim to request an investigation.
Main findings on awareness of child trafficking
- Existing knowledge is sketchy, with the greatest knowledge bank in cities, particularly Glasgow;
- There is willingness to admit to a lack of knowledge;
- Misperception that victims would be young children as opposed to adolescents;
- Viewed as being an urban problem which could not happen in rural areas as communities know what goes on; and
- A presumption that trafficking is an immigration issue.
Sample comments about child trafficking
"Frankly, I was not aware that the issue occurred in Scotland."
(Case worker, health)
"In my experience, staff do not equate trafficking as a child protection issue, struggle to understand the differences between trafficking, smuggling and migration and hold many of their own personal viewsjudgments about whether children are `better off here than they were at home' even if they have been trafficked."
(Violence against women worker)
"I am not sure I would be able to recognise signs of child trafficking as it is an issue I have heard little about in the area I work."
"I think it is entirely possible that the children that my department officially comes into contact with (eg through a placing request to enter one of our schools) are the tip of an iceberg. What we cannot know anything about is the number of children for whom trafficking is largely a lonely, anonymous experience because those who have control over them do not place them in the public eye by engaging with services such as the education department."
"Police in Aberdeenshire do not think there is a trafficking problem here."
(Strategic development officer, education)
Source: "Scotland: A safe place for traffickers? A scoping study into the nature and extent of child trafficking in Scotland", published by the Scottish Commissioner for Children and Young People
Case study: life of crime
Until last year Chief Inspector Colin Carswell was part of Operation Golf, a unit within the Metropolitan Police tasked with dismantling child trafficking gangs.
He describes a case where a mother and father daily took their five children - aged 18 months to 16 - into central London to beg and steal for up to 12 hours a day, over a period of 10 years. None of the children had ever received any education, health care or dental treatment, but they were known to local social services.
The two oldest, brothers aged 14 and 16, were prolific offenders. Westminster Police had recorded them stealing 89 times in just six months.
The parents were arrested and initially charged with the trafficking of the children and child neglect. The children, who had been forced into criminality and burned with cigarettes, were safeguarded in September 2009.
"When the children were safeguarded, I spoke personally to the 14-year-old boy," says Chief Inspector Carswell. "He told me that all he wanted was to go to school."
The children remain in foster care and all apart from the eldest are in education. None have since been caught re-offending.
Can you spot the warning signs?
Child trafficking indicators:
- Appears to be in Scotland illegally.
- Had hisher journeyvisa arranged by someone other than themselves or their family.
- Is accompanied by an adult who insists on remaining with the child at all times.
- Has a prepared story very similar to that given by other children.
- Does not appear to have money but does have a mobile phone.
- Is unable or reluctant to give details of accommodation or other personal details.
- Receives unexplainedunidentified phone calls while in placementtemporary accommodation.
- Show signs of physical or sexual abuse, andor has contracted a sexually transmitted infection or has an unplanned pregnancy.
- Has a history with missing links and unexplained moves.
- Is one among a number of unrelated children found at one address.
- Is required to earn a minimum amount of money every day.
- Has limited freedom of movement.
Main findings on awareness of child trafficking from SCCYPPerth College web survey:
Have you received any training on the issue of child trafficking?
No: 81% (648)
Source: Scottish Government's guidance on Safeguarding Children in Scotland who may have been Trafficked.