Children trapped in modern slavery are being failed, campaigners said on Tuesday after European authorities found dozens of suspected trafficking victims in a region-wide crackdown, one aged just two.
European policing agency Europol announced 51 children were among 123 suspected victims identified in a drive against trafficking in the first week of July. They had been exploited for labour, forced begging and sexual purposes, it said.
“The reality is only starting to hit home,” Jakub Sobik of the campaign group Anti-Slavery International told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, urging more training for police officers and other frontline staff.
“We find that a lot of people who have been trafficked came in touch with someone who might have helped them along the way, but they didn’t because they didn’t know to recognise someone might have been exploited or controlled by someone else.”
Authorities arrested 24 people on suspicion of human trafficking and held another 61 for other offences, Europol said.
More than half the arrests were in Britain, where 44 people were held for a range of offences including rape of a child, sexual assault and modern slavery crimes.
Adam Thompson, a senior manager at the British National Crime Agency’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit, said some of the trafficked children ended up being sexually abused, used as cheap labour or forced into crime.
“Working with our European partners is key to tackling this threat at the source, safeguarding victims and improving the intelligence picture,” he said.
Britain is considered an international leader in the fight against slavery, having passed the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to jail traffickers for life, better protect vulnerable people, and compel large businesses to address the threat of forced labour.
Yet child victims of slavery have no guarantee of specialist support or time to remain under the law, which is under review.
Campaigners have expressed concerns that it has not made a serious dent in a trade estimated to cost Britain billions of pounds a year.