Punishing child victims of trafficking is not justice
Precious*, 16, agreed to leave Nigeria to avoid an arranged marriage to a 63-year-old man. When she arrived in the UK she was threatened, raped and forced to have sex to repay a “debt” to her traffickers of almost £50,000 for the travel that had been arranged for her. When Precious finally managed to escape, she was arrested for holding false identity documents on board a coach headed for France. She pleaded guilty to an offence of possessing a false identity card with the intention of using it as her own, and was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment.
Precious was lucky: her case went to the Court of Appeal and her conviction was quashed. But criminalisation of trafficked children is commonplace. It is impossible to know the exact number of trafficked children who have been punished for an offence that was a direct result of trafficking, but we know from case law that it happens.
Unicef UK believes that prosecuting a trafficked child for crimes they have been forced to commit is a violation of their basic rights. Imposing penalties only traumatises a child further. It denies them access to justice and redress, and the right to protection against secondary victimisation. Not prosecuting people who have been trafficked is also in the interest of the UK justice system: victims of human trafficking and modern slavery won’t seek help from the authorities when they risk and fear being arrested and detained.
We welcome the non-punishment principle in the Modern Slavery Bill, although we are concerned that the current wording does not go far enough to protect children. The proposed new defence states that a person will not be guilty of an offence if “the person does the act which constitutes the offence because the person is compelled to do that act”. As it stands, this may imply that compulsion has to be proven to show that the child is entitled to a defence. That cannot be right. It is a principle of international law that children cannot consent to being exploited.
The Court of Appeal found that the circumstances of Precious’s conviction were “shameful” and that a fair trial had not taken place. An improved non-punishment principle in the Modern Slavery Bill will go a long way to ensuring that a similar injustice is not done again.
*Name changed and model used in photograph