It has been revealed that over the last 2 years in Northern Ireland, 71 children and young people have been and are still receiving support from the Independent Guardians service.
Independent guardians are individuals (independent of local authorities) appointed to trafficked children and separated migrant children to safeguard their best interest. The role of an independent guardian is to provide consistent, independent, support, advice and advocacy for children who face extremely challenging and confusing situations.
The data was revealed by the Minister of Health, following a question from the DUP's Joanne Bunting. The question was as follows: To ask the Minister of Health how many children have been supported by the Independent Guardians appointed under section 21 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act, broken down by (i) age; (ii) sex; and (iii) nationality in each of the last three years.
The Minister's reply showed that in year one of the service being operational, 55 children and young people were supported and 41 of them continued to receive support in year two. In addition, a further 30 new children came forward, meaning there are currently 71 children being supported. That number is expected to rise. The Independent Guardian service is a key part of Northern Ireland's bespoke human trafficking laws.
The Act that created independent guardians in Northern Ireland was passed in 2015 and was the first dedicated human trafficking legislation in the UK. Northern Ireland has led the way for providing support to trafficking and vulnerable children. In fact, NI’s human trafficking laws are a gold standard for similar legislation in other countries.
CARE was heavily involved in campaigning for and then advising Lord Morrow, who steered NI’s human trafficking laws through the NI Assembly.
With such clear evidence that the scheme is working effectively in Northern Ireland, it raises questions about why a similar scheme has not been fully rolled out across England and Wales.
Section 48 of the 2015 Modern Slavery Actrequires the Government to provide child victims of trafficking with independent guardians. Since 2015, while there have been two successful pilots in England and Wales, Section 48 yet to be fully brought into effect.
In 2018 over 3000 children were referred to the National Referral Mechanism and high numbers of children are also reported missing from care.
The charity Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) found that 24% of all identified or suspected victims of trafficking went missing from care in 2017.
Currently two thirds of local authorities in England do not have access to this vital scheme.
CARE’s Communications Manager, James Mildred said: “The Government should follow in the footsteps of Northern Ireland and implement the independent guardians scheme to protect all vulnerable children from exploitation.
“The constant delays to implementing Section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act only harm child victims.
“Northern Ireland continues to lead the way when it comes to caring for victims of human trafficking and we urge the Home Office to get on and roll the child guardian scheme out across England and Wales as soon as possible.”