Britain is failing to protect thousands of children from being trafficked and enslaved, activists said yesterday, criticising the government for lacking a clear strategy to stop girls being sexually abused and gangs using young people as drug mules.
The government's approach to tackling child trafficking is fragmented and young victims lack specialist care at a time when a record number of child slaves are being uncovered, said the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG), a group of charities.
In Britain, 2,118 children suspected to have been trafficked - mostly trapped in sexual exploitation, domestic servitude or forced labour - were referred to the government last year, up 66 percent on 2016 and the highest annual number on record.
About a third were British, many used as drug runners, while hundreds were trafficked from countries such as Vietnam, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq, according to government figures.
"Having no clear plan in place to prevent child trafficking in the UK ... should shame this government," said Anti-Slavery International's chief executive Jasmine O'Connor, adding that simply targeting the traffickers would not solve the problem.
"We need to create support networks that can make children and their families resilient to being coerced, are able to spot the worrying signs quickly, and can provide specialised support for children who have already been trafficked," she added.
A Home Office (interior ministry) spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the government already had a clear plan to prevent human trafficking, especially that of children.
"This has been a key component of our world-leading approach to tackling modern slavery since 2014, when the Modern Slavery Strategy was published," he said.
Britain last week announced a 2 million pound ($2.6 million) scheme to help authorities protect vulnerable children from traffickers and gangs who rape them and force them to move drugs from cities to rural areas.
Yet the government mostly focuses on helping children who have been exploited, rather than prevention, while frontline professionals such as doctors, teachers and social workers lack the training to spot vulnerable children, according to the ATMG.
Unlike adult victims, trafficked children have no guarantee of specialist support once identified, and many go into the care of local authorities where they may end up in fresh danger, said Catherine Baker, policy officer at charity ECPAT UK.
"In the care of children's services, they too often go missing or are retrafficked. This marks a complete failure to prevent these most vulnerable of victims from further harm."
Hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain last month said it would review its landmark 2015 law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, help victims, or drive companies to spot and stop forced labour.
Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern-day slaves, says the Australian human rights group Walk Free Foundation - a figure about 10 times higher than a 2013 government estimate.