Ann Lucas and Amanda Palmer of the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) describe the work of the centre and offer guidance on how schools can play a role in prevention and in reporting their concerns

The United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) is a multi-agency centre providing a central point for the development of expertise, operational and strategic coordination in relation to the trafficking of human beings. The centre is committed to developing and delivering a victim centred approach to combating all recognised forms of trafficking in human beings. As part of its remit UKHTC works closely with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) in order to tackle the abuse of children and young people through child trafficking.

Definition of trafficking
Article 3 of the Palermo Protocol states: (a) ‘“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitiude or the removal of organs.’ (c) ‘The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons” even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article.’ A child is any person under 18 years. The trafficking of children can be defined as the movement of children for the purpose of exploitation. This movement can be either into, within, or out of the UK. Under the Palermo Protocol it is irrelevant whether a child has consented to their transportation or not. Children can be trafficked for various reasons, including sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude, criminal activities – for example pick pocketing and organised begging, benefit fraud, organ harvesting or illegal adoption.

Internal trafficking – what is it?

In addition to children trafficked from abroad, British nationals can also be victims of child trafficking within the UK. This is often seen in situations where young people are victims of sexual exploitation and the perpetrators of this abuse move them from one city in the UK to another for the purpose of sexual abuse by individuals or groups of men in another city. This is organised criminality and the men often employ a grooming process similar to that described below. Young people are drawn into a relationship with an older male who they regard as their boyfriend. These males are usually early-late 20s. They entice the young person, usually female, into an ‘exciting’ experience by inviting her back to their flat or house where she is then offered alcohol and drugs, encouraged to stay out late and then not to return home at all. A sexual relationship may develop with the ‘boyfriend’. At a later stage the men will encourage her to go missing from home or care. She is then taken to other cities within the UK, introduced to other groups of men and asked to provide sexual favours. By this time she is in no position to refuse as she may find herself in a situation where no one knows where she is, and indeed, she may not even know her location. Young people therefore experience situations of high vulnerability, with parents and carers not knowing where they are. A number of young people have also described being given something to drink and then waking up the next day with no idea what has happened to them. This suggests the use of a date rape drug by the men. Others have described being subjected to extreme physical and sexual violence, including rape. In addition to being sexually abused and trafficked to different cities within the UK, some young people have described being used to transport and deal drugs. In some more extreme cases young people have been introduced to saunas and massage parlours or coerced into selling sex from flats and houses.

Case study: internal trafficking

Karla had just reached her 13th birthday when she met a young woman aged 18 years. This young woman introduced Karla to her older boyfriend. Karla began to go missing from home and stopped attending school. Until that time there had been no problems with Karla either at home or school. She began to go missing more regularly and for longer periods of time, on one occasion she was gone for three weeks. Her parents were distraught. Karla eventually told her mum that she had had sex with an older male, aged 28 years, who she thought of as her boyfriend. She also disclosed that she had been taken to other cities in the UK when she was missing from home. She knew the name of the other cities but had no idea of the location within the cities of the houses she had been taken to. There were other men at these addresses. Karla was abducted, raped and held prisoner in a flat for two days before she managed to escape. She told the police what had happened but the male who raped her could not be identified. Karla and her family were offered support through a sexual exploitation service, social workers and police but she still continued to go missing. Eventually she was placed in secure accommodation for her own safety. When she was in the secure placement Karla disclosed a catalogue of abuse perpetrated by the men, including sexual assault, rape, physical abuse, use of date rape drugs, being plied with alcohol and other substances, being imprisoned and being used to carry drugs to other cities. It was also clear that in addition to this, the men who had abused her had threatened her with further violence to herself and her parents if she told anyone what was happening. Karla was not alone in being abused in this way as other girls, some who were friends of Karla, were also being sexually exploited and trafficked by these groups of men.

Indicators of risk

At the start of the grooming process outlined above young people often exhibit behaviours that can alert family, friends and professionals to the fact that they are at risk of being sexually exploited. These include:

  • going missing from home
  • associating with older people especially older men
  • breaking away from family and former friends
  • involvement in drug/alcohol use
  • disengagement from education.

What role do schools have?


All young people are potentially at risk of being sexually exploited and internally trafficked and schools have a vital role to play in reducing this risk. The recently published Sex Education Forum Factsheet 37 Addressing Healthy Relationships and Sexual Exploitation within PSHE in Schools stresses the importance of delivering effective education on sexual exploitation. It provides a framework to help teachers to plan lessons and gives examples of education packs that have been produced by specialist sexual exploitation projects which can be used within PSHE. Schools are able to raise the issue of sexual exploitation and internal trafficking with young people to alert them to the dangers and equip them with the knowledge and skills to avoid risky situations. Young people can be given the opportunity to discuss the issue in a safe environment.


Schools are in a prime position to identify young people when they begin to exhibit the indicators of risk outlined above. One of the key risk factors is disengagement from education. Not attending school gives young people the opportunity to spend more time with potentially risky people and makes it impossible to monitor their whereabouts. Young people are also removed from the influence of their peer group within the school environment and exposed to negative outside peer influences. Within school young people often share their worries about the risky behaviour of friends. This may alert teachers and other education professionals to the possibility of sexual exploitation. If a young person is beginning to experiment with drugs and/or alcohol this may be picked up within the school setting due to the change in behaviour of the young person. Teachers, school nurses and learning mentors may have a good relationship with the young person thought to be at risk. This places them in an ideal position to talk through their concerns about sexual exploitation/internal trafficking with the young person. This could be used as an opportunity to talk about the grooming process and risks on an individual basis.


Whenever there are concerns that a young person is the subject of, or at risk of being sexually exploited/internally trafficked the school should make contact with the local authority Children’s Service who should undertake an assessment to consider whether the young person is in need, or suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm. There should be an agreed local protocol in place to deal with situations of sexual exploitation which will be implemented. Many areas have specific sexual exploitation projects that are able to offer advice and support to the young person.

New helpline to combat child trafficking

The NSPCC has set up a new helpline offering advice on child trafficking issues. The service was set up with funding from the Home Office and Comic Relief. It will run in partnership with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) and End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT UK). The NSPCC has received referrals of trafficked children to its London-based Streetmatters/Bfree group, which helps sexually exploited girls and young women. A number of trafficked young people who have benefited from the service will help to guide the NSPCC and its partners on the future development of the Child Trafficking Advice and Information Line. CEOP’s 2007 study uncovered 330 children and young people who had been trafficked into the UK and were subsequently abused and exploited through slave labour and forced prostitution. NSPCC director and chief executive Dame Mary Marsh said: ‘Trafficked children have often lost their trust in adults because of the abuse they have suffered. The NSPCC’s advice line will help break down these barriers. Its success will depend on adults working with children being vigilant, calling us when they need to know what to do, and intervening to help protect the victims of child trafficking.’ The helpline will offer advice and will also be able to refer callers to other agencies including sources of direct support for trafficked children, and provide training to professions and community organisations working with children. CEOP staff will work alongside NSPCC staff to provide advice and information on law enforcement issues, and link up with the UK’s Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) for guidance on trafficking-related police operations. Common signs that a child may have been trafficked include:

  • Children who seem confused about their living arrangements, or how they came to be in the UK.
  • Adults who appear to be controlling a child’s ability to communicate with others or take part in normal life.
  • A child being looked after by adults whose relationship to them is unclear.
  • A young person who regularly goes missing from local authority care and turns up at different locations around the country.
  • A child who is known to regularly beg for money or is linked to criminal activity.
  • A child who has not been enrolled at a school, registered with a GP and whose contact with social services is being hampered by their supposed carer.

The Child Trafficking Advice and Information Line will initially operate from 9.30am till 4.30pm on weekdays. The telephone number is 0800 107 7057.

Further information

What UKHTC can do to help you

UKHTC works closely with police forces and other partner agencies throughout the UK, and can assist with intelligence collection, analysis, operational support and guidance. The UKHTC can provide advice and assistance in a range of ways that will support the effective delivery of prevention and prosecution strategies. The UKHTC has a victim care focus, and this is a golden thread that runs through all the work the centre undertakes.

You can find more information about our work on the UKHTC website

If you would like to speak with a member of staff call us on 0114 2523891