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Health and Wellbeing
A Health and Well-being Wales Partner

It’s tempting to think of child slavery as a thing of the past, but unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

Often, children and young people are deliberately targeted by criminal gangs simply because they are vulnerable.

Modern slavery is the term used when someone is forced or coerced into servitude or working in very low or no-pay jobs, sometimes within the perpetrator’s business or home. Modern slaves are deprived of their freedom and are treated like they are owned by the other person.

Human trafficking describes a situation when a person is brought to (or moved around) a country by others who trick, threaten, frighten, hurt or force them to do work or other things they don’t want to do.

The two are strongly linked, with the victims of slavery often being moved around – or trafficked – by the person who is controlling them.

Many children are trafficked into the UK from abroad but not all. Children can also be trafficked from one part of the UK to another, from one town to another, and even from one street to another.

Why are children trafficked?

Children are trafficked for many reasons, including:

  • forced labour, e.g. in factories and restaurants and on farms
  • domestic servitude, e.g. childcare, cooking and cleaning
  • criminal activities, e.g. selling pirated goods, growing cannabis
  • forced marriage
  • child sexual exploitation
  • benefits fraud

How to spot child victims of slavery

For obvious reasons, child slavery and exploitation are often hidden from view, e.g. children are working around-the-clock in restaurants and factories, or behind locked doors as nannies, or are being forced into child prostitution. 

Some of the common signs for possible child victims include:

  • being malnourished and/or poorly dressed with few possessions
  • having physical injuries, e.g. bruising, or signs of old or untreated injuries
  • appearing to be withdrawn or frightened, and reluctant to speak for themselves
  • being cared for by an adult that is not their parent or legal guardian, with signs of a poor-quality relationship
  • non-attendance at school and not registered with a GP
  • living at an address with other children who are not related – and moving addresses frequently
  • 'disappearing' when they come into contact with authorities, e.g. social services

Not all children who are in slavery will show outward signs of distress. They have been groomed to keep their circumstances and abuse quiet and may even have a ‘bond’ with those who are exploiting them. They are still likely to be very scared and traumatised.

County lines

‘County lines’ is the police term for a specific kind of criminal exploitation which involves urban gangs supplying drugs to suburban areas and smaller towns using dedicated mobile phone lines or ‘deal lines’.

A gang will establish a base in the market location, typically by taking over the home of a local vulnerable adult by force or coercion – this practice is referred to as ‘cuckooing’.

These organised criminal gangs then exploit vulnerable young people and children as young as 12 to courier drugs out of their local area, promising them something they need in exchange, e.g. cash, drugs, clothes, status, protection or even perceived friendship or affection.

Young people who have been groomed do not always see themselves as victims; however, their treatment can still be exploitative even if the activity appears consensual. 

County lines is a major cross-cutting issue that involves missing persons, drugs, violence, gangs, criminal and sexual exploitation and modern day slavery.

What to do if you think a child is a victim?

If you think a young person has been trafficked or is being exploited by criminal gangs – even if you’re not 100% sure – it’s always best to speak to someone who can look into the situation.

Ring the police on 101 or contact your council’s Local Safeguarding Team.

If you have information that could lead to the identification, discovery and recovery of victims, you can also call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700.

In an emergency, always ring 999.

If you think a crime might have taken place, such as rape, assault or theft, please ring the police and be careful not to remove or destroy any evidence.

You can find more information about trafficking and modern slavery here and county lines here

Last updated: 05/01/2023