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LONDON, Oct 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was bad enough to be stolen from home and trafficked over the seas into slavery - but rescued children say Britain offers scant solace or support once they escape their ordeal.
Victims of trafficking testified in parliament on Wednesday about falling into slavery and how they struggled in its aftermath, saying Britain falls far short of its reputation as a leader in the fight against modern slavery.
“We’re getting confused, we are scared every night that they will send us back. We cannot sleep,” Anna, a 16-year-old from the Horn of Africa, told a room of fellow survivors, policy makers and advocates.
Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
Anna is one of millions of child victims in a network that enslaves 40.3 million people in everything from forced labour to sex work, according to the International Labour Organization.
In Britain, 3,137 children suspected of being trafficked were referred to the government last year, an increase of 48% on 2017 and the highest annual number on record.
Most were British, while hundreds come from as far afield as Albania to Eritrea, many then coerced into selling drugs for dealers as they expand business outside the big cities, according to government figures.
Experts in child trafficking - from temporary carers to Britain’s slavery tsar - agreed the system needed an overhaul, saying more must be done to slash red tape and speed trafficked children back into some sort of normal.
“The system needs to wake up and get a move on and just apply some common sense really,” said Vernon Coaker, moderator of the event and an opposition member of the British parliament.
“It’s wrong when a system is set up where people have to fight all the time to get what should just happen.”
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 have no legal guarantee of specialist support nor any right to remain in Britain post-trafficking, measures under review amid campaigner concerns about the act.
Many said that the government had no intention of making changes for children like Anna, and called for concrete change - from temporary documentation during the immigration process to language support for legal meetings and educational courses.
One temporary carer of trafficked children - who asked to remain anonymous to protect the young people under her care - recalled a lack of interpreters and a dearth of compassion.
“They’re not seen as children ... They are seen as something in the immigration system with no rights and I am ashamed that that’s the way we support young people in this country,” she said, holding back tears.
“There’s not one bit of a young person’s journey where provision is fit for purpose.”
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.
The lucky ones who escape then face delay, insecurity and lack the sort of simple, everyday things that make up life, said Britain’s Anti-Slavery Commissioner Sara Thornton.
“People’s lives are just on hold,” she said. (Reporting by Amber Milne; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)