Hundreds of British children could be being trafficked, Barnardo's says
Networks of men may be grooming hundreds of British children for sexual exploitation, the charity's latest survey suggests
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 17 November 2009 07.00 GMT
Sophisticated networks of older men may be grooming hundreds of British children to be trafficked within the UK for sexual exploitation, the charity Barnardo's believes.
Organised criminals are gaining the trust of vulnerable young girls by showering them with gifts and affection, before plying them with alcohol and drugs, according to a report out today. They are then moved from city to city, where they are forced to have sex with numerous other men.
Barnardo's estimates that thousands of British children could be being sold for sex around the country, yet only 20% of local authorities have any specialist services to help them. Many children believe what has happened is their own fault, and are so ashamed that they never speak out about the abuse they suffer, campaigners say.
At the time of a snapshot survey last month by the charity, 21 projects were working with 609 sexually exploited children, around half of whom go missing on a regular basis. Ninety of them – spread over 15 projects – appeared to have been "internally trafficked".
Wendy Shepherd, a service manager for the charity in the north-east, said she believed the total number being trafficked within the UK was likely to be in the hundreds, given that Barnardo's only works on sexual exploitation in 20 of the 209 local authorities in the country.
The report, Whose Child Now?, describes how girls are befriended by men who present themselves as boyfriends, offering them drink, presents and sometimes even flats to live in. But eventually they face "payback" time, when they are taken miles from home and told they must have sex with the man's "friends", and threatened with violence if they refuse.
Imogen – not her real name – was 13 when the man she thought was her boyfriend started driving her around the country, taking her to hotels in Leeds, Bradford, Manchester and London for nights at a time.
"Some men asked 'How old is she?'" she told the report's authors. "Some asked 'Have you got any younger?' They were really sick.
"It's really hard to talk about girls being trafficked in this country; no one wants to believe it ... I wanted to escape, but he just controlled me. It was a mental thing – I was terrified."
The chief executive of Barnardo's, former prison service director-general Martin Narey, said spending a night with one of the charity's services recently had left him shaken.
"I don't think I'm easily shocked; I used to run the prison service," he said. "But I was very, very struck by the poverty, desperation and hopelessness of these young girls.
Shepherd said the exploitation was becoming more organised and the abusers more sophisticated. "There are networks of older men grooming and trafficking children within the UK," she said. "It's a growing phenomenon and it's extremely difficult to police."
She added: "The children we work with feel a terrible sense of shame. They've been forced to do awful things by the adults who groom and control them – yet somehow society blames them. A child cannot consent to their own abuse."
In the last year Barnardo's, which next month will launch a TV advertising campaign on sexual exploitation, has worked with 1,060 children and young people who had suffered at the hands of abusers, in 20 local authorities. "We don't know the true extent of this problem," Narey said. "But we know, however hidden from the public eye it might be, that it affects many thousands of children."