An analysis of the effects of discourses on justice for victims of internal child trafficking for sexual exploitation within the United Kingdom. Part 1

Janine S White
13 min readSep 18, 2020


Child trafficking for sexual exploitation has been described as ‘the most viscous premeditated form of crime I have come across short of homicide and terrorism’. (Britain’s sex gangs., 2016).

Internal human trafficking is a phrase that is little understood within the United Kingdom and the suitability of the criminal justice system to provide for the victims has been under scrutiny since the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham, which was published in 2014. Within this report many failings of professional services were highlighted giving rise to new beliefs and understandings about the sexual exploitation of children and the refusal of professionals to bring offenders to justice (Jay., 2014).

Due to one of the significant failings highlighted in the report, a notion that British born Asian Muslims are abusing vulnerable white British girls, begun (Tuffail., 2015). This led to calls for resignations of professionals, the involvement of far-right groups such as the English National League and inquiries by the government and non-governmental organisations, causing one of the largest policy changes in UK history (Niblock and Bindel., 2017). This article will break down the labels surrounding the human trafficking of children within the UK for sexual exploitation. It will attempt to understand how British born Asian men have become the focus of the beliefs that currently dominate perpetrators, and how vulnerable white British girls dominate the discourses of victims within criminal justice debates nationwide.

The article will show that the criminal justice system is riddled with discourses which severely affect the outcomes for both victims and offenders. It will show that if anyone involved in the trafficking of children, whether victim, or offender, for child sexual exploitation within the UK do not fit the dominant discourses, justice is not applied.

To frame this article, a child will refer to any person under the age of 18 years according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Brayley and Cockbain., 2014). Despite this definition being based on modern discourses, it is universally accepted and applied in the research covered by this article. Using this definition, the article will explain the difficulties in defining human trafficking and why research is limited when using this search term. It will provide evidence that child sexual exploitation is an umbrella term for many forms of the abuse of children and young people and has therefore, been used to research and understand the impact of human trafficking of children in most cases. It will critically analyse the difficulties in interpretation of policies created for child trafficking and child sexual exploitation (CSE), before assessing the labels surrounding what makes a victim and what makes an offender. This will be followed by analysing the media’s impact on these discourses to assess whether a moral panic has been created. A moral panic is the use of stereotypical media representations to represent a threat to the values of society, By mapping an event or identifying feature into a discursive framework, the media attempts to justify a severe criminal justice response (Denham., 2008, cited in The Open University., 2019b). To begin, this article will attempt to define the crime.

What is trafficking?

The most accepted international definition of human trafficking is the United Nations’ (2000) Palermo Protocol, which states that human trafficking is

‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring and receipt of persons… for the purpose of exploitation’ (Brayley and Cockbain., 2014).

This definition has been adapted within the UK, under The Sexual Offences Act 2003, which introduced specific legislation against internal sex trafficking. (Section 58) defines human trafficking as involving all victims moved within the UK for the purposes of exploitation, regardless of their nationality (Brayley and Cockbain., 2014). This additional piece of information adopted within the law suggests that there were difficulties with the application of the Palermo Protocol which required addressing.

Interpretation of national and international legislation available for human trafficking varies, based on dominant discourses and ideologies of the time. Salter and Dagistanli (2015) examine how discourses currently portray internal trafficking of children within the UK for the purpose of sexual exploitation, as a new phenomenon. This claim is supported by HMRC (2015) who describe human trafficking as a new threat in their Regional Organised Crime Units: A review of capability and effectiveness report. In the ‘British children can be trafficked too’ article, Westwood (2010) criticises the assertion that it is a new phenomenon, by pointing out the usage of dubious and unsubstantiated research findings provided by activists, politicians and researchers in their attempt to promote public awareness of human trafficking. Both researchers found that this offense is in no way new and the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation, as a concern of UK policy makers, can be traced back to the Victorian era.

During this era, the sexuality of working-class children became a formidable campaign for middle-class Victorians due to their strong religious and moral views that procreation should only be for the use of breeding (Cree et al., 2014). With a focus on ‘the white slave trade’ and the sensationalist reporting of William Stead the age of sexual consent was raised to 16 in 1885. William Stead produces a series within the Pall Mall Gazette about white British children being purchased within the UK and moved abroad for the purpose of sexual exploitation (Cree at al., 2012). These articles were written in shocking detail, leading to the UK paving the way to stop such activities by implementing policies to ensure the growth of human trafficking organisations and a wealth of legislation to bring offenders to justice.

Additional to the portrayal of the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation as a new phenomenon there is considerable debate about whether internal trafficking can even exist (Brayley and Cockbain., 2014). Brayley and Cockbain show concern that the agencies which are tasked with understanding internal child trafficking such as CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) do not feel that British children require this label as the CSE label is adequate. Brayley and Cockbain express that there are theoretical flaws in believing that British children are not trafficked and convey that if a victim is under the age of eighteen and moved from one place to another for sexual purposes then they need to be treated as a victim regardless of their nationality. Barnardo’s (2011) have therefore produced a definition which incorporates the recently accepted beliefs of child exploitation and trafficking as relevant to British children.

“Young people (often connected) are passed through networks, possibly over geographical distances, between towns and cities where they may be forced/coerced into social activity with multiple men. Often this occurs at ‘sex parties’, and young people who are involved may be agents to recruit others into the network. Some of this activity is described as serious organised crim and can involve the organised ‘buying and selling’ of young people by perpetrators.” Barnardo’s (2011)

Regardless of which definition is used, there are interpretation difficulties in the enforcement of policies which arise from them (Brayley and Cockbain., 2014). One of the difficulties faced when researching internal trafficking of children for the purpose of sexual exploitation within the UK, is how different agencies record their data according to localised discourses.

There is overwhelming suggestion that the numbers that are recorded are just a minority compared to the actual proportion of children being trafficked for sexual exploitation (Berelowitz., 2013 and Brayley and Cockbain., 2014). Berelowitz (2013) for example, claims that victims who were of high risk of becoming victims or were already victims, were being ignored or discounted in figures. Cree et al (2014) disagree with the concept that there are hidden victims and suggest that there are simply low numbers of this offence occurring. With limited systems for reporting internal child trafficking within statutory agencies this claim is difficult to dispute or confirm.

To gain more understanding of the figures, Berelowitz et al (2013) compared data from local children’s safeguarding boards for their inquiry; ‘If only someone had listened’, which reported on child exploitation in gangs and groups, and found significant failings in the recording of information. Berelowitz et al (2013) found that almost half of the boards could not ascertain who had been identified as a potential CSE victim in 2012, almost a third had no plans to appoint a CSE co-ordinator to manage the recording of such cases, and that any data which was held was not being monitored to see if the chosen action plans were working.

Brayley and Cockbain (2014) have tried to explain this lack of data by bringing attention to the fact that there is no clear and agreed definition of internal trafficking of children which separates it from the already well known and established legislation surrounding child sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse. Therefore, there are a range of offences that the police forces and social workers can record a crime under and Brayley and Cockbain believe that the better understood offence will be chosen. They stipulate that this range of options is open to interpretations and therefore recording of offences with the same features could be classified differently according to the dominant discourses within their organisations.

This concerning difference in the recording of data is added to when it is considered that the lead agency with responsibility for human trafficking of children within the UK for sexual exploitation; CEOP are themselves unconvinced that it even exists (Brayley and Cockbain., 2014). If the ‘experts’ are unsure of the classifications and understanding of internal child trafficking for sexual exploitation, how are less exposed professionals expected to record accurately? Therefore, it can be established that discourses are directly affecting the recording and maintenance of data surrounding victims and perpetrators of internal child trafficking which affects which offences reach conviction.

As there is so much confusion surrounding the criminal justice system within the UK and interpretation differs at all levels, Barnardo’s (2014) state that the offence of trafficking will be set aside to gain a guaranteed conviction. In other words, if an alternative sexual offence is guaranteed to result in a conviction, it will be pursued instead of trafficking, even if this means categorising the crime under an alternative legal definition.

Therefore, trafficking may be pursued as child sexual exploitation, disregarding the movement and sale of the child because it is easier to prove than the movement of the child.

Throughout the research for this article, it has been difficult to find literature that is based solely on the internal trafficking of children, which supports Barnardo’s claim. By being aware of the cases within the UK which have led to convictions for the trafficking of children it was possible to locate research which incorporated this or used the umbrella term of child sexual exploitation. For example, Barnardo’s (2014), Barnardo’s (2011) and Gohir (2013).

When critically analysing this research there are many references to the ingredients of the Palermo Protocol, the Sexual Offenders Act and even direct reference to the term trafficking itself. This points to a wariness of the authors that readers will receive the research in the intended way if the words internal trafficking is used and therefore opting for words and phrases that are already in the public realm. This may be because grooming and CSE is a priority for the government to promote awareness of (Home Office and Immigration Enforcement., 2011). This is referred to by Papadouka et al (2016) as an active audience who sets the agenda and involves the audience participating in the interpretation, understanding and continuation of the data. It is possible to see this in action from the public and media interaction with the findings of the Jay Report (Tuffail., 2015).

With so much confusion about the legal definition of trafficking it is unsurprising that professionals are unaware of whose responsibility it is to capture information and support victims. For example, in the BBC documentary, Betrayed Girls (2017); children’s services were not responding to calls from sexual health clinics and parents, who were continuously reporting concerns about the welfare of teenage girls being exploited in Rochdale. The researchers found that one of the reasons for this was because children’s services felt that if it was a crime, it was the role of the police to deal with.

On the other hand, the police felt that it was a welfare concern and therefore the responsibility was of children’s services. This signifies confusion surrounding the internal trafficking of children for sexual exploitation within the UK as being at not only the level of court rooms, but also with front line workers who have the responsibility of making day to day decisions and assessments regarding the welfare and safety of children.

However, although it is a wonderful idea to have a definition that clearly states responsibility, that is accepted and understood by all throughout the population, Broad (2015) feels that the frameworks created to identify the crime and bring justice are trying to be over simplistic (See also Brayley and Cockbain (2014). Broad (2015) describes the criminal justice policies in place as constructed through the discourses of men who profit from enslaved children. With this notion there is perceived to be an ideal victim and an ideal perpetrator. A recurring issue that has been raised in inquiries which have been commissioned to understand and make recommendations about the trafficking and sexual exploitation of children is that not all victims and perpetrators fit into ideal categories (See McAlinden., 2010 and Broad., 2015). Following on from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham (Jay., 2014) for the research has been undertaken which recommends that each case should be seen individually rather than under stereotypical discourse (See Home Office (2015), Gearon (2018) and Berelowitz et al (2013).

Despite the questions surrounding ideal victims, a recurring theme within discourses around child trafficking is that it is a planned and organised crime setting it apart from other sexual abuse offences against children (Gohir., 2013 and Salter et al., 2015).

The United Nations uses the term planned and organised to describe crimes involving a collective group who produce, supply and finance goods or services for illegal markets. It is also used to describe serious crimes which appear hard to control (Gill., 2013, cited in McLaughlin and Muncie., 2013).

The organisation and planning of internal child trafficking can be identified in Berelowitz et al (2013) who give two examples of organised crimes within child sexual exploitation; in one example girls aged twelve to fifteen are groomed by men in their twenty’s and taken to private properties or hotels where men of all ages visit the girls and pay to rape them. In this example, it is not unusual for the girls to be trafficked to other parts of the UK to be introduced to more men.

Berelowitz et al (2013) describe an organisational structure and hierarchy within this example. The second example includes boys aged fourteen to fifteen, or previous female victims, being recruited to find girls for men to abuse. The girls are trafficked in cars or taxis to private homes or warehouses and given alcohol or drugs while men pay to rape them. These examples were useful for Brayley and Cockbain (2014) to allow their research to be focussed on groups of people, who are connected in some way, including through friendship.

It was also beneficial for the children in Derbyshire who were trafficked for sexual exploitation as by being classed as an organised crime it became legal to use surveillance to catch the perpetrators in action (Britain’s Sex Gangs., 2016). Through increasing security and labelling foreigners as others, the criminal justice system can use intrusive ways to regain control of crimes (Bosworth and Guild., 2008, cited in The Open University., 2019f).

The planning and organisation involved in this crime is also supported by an informant who describes how once a trafficker has got a girl, the trafficker will send out a message to a list of contacts giving basic details and how much is wanted for a sexual act with said girl. The girl is then taken to a home or warehouse ready for the men (Britain’s sex gangs., 2016). Brayley et al (2011) would also agree that there is an organisational structure but do raise concern that this suggests it is an unmanageable crime.

Therefore, they pinpointed five stages of abuse in internal child trafficking which are relevant to most cases. Through crime scripting; breaking offences that seem impossible to control down into starting points, they found that the serious organised crime of internal child trafficking was more manageable in bitesize chunks. It is suggested that each chunk could be dealt with individually. Therefore, a crime deemed as complex could become another regular crime.

In contrast, identifying child trafficking as an organised crime means that it is interpreted and defined through criminal, immigration and economic terms, with focus on strengthening borders. Using the Visa and Immigration Agency to deal with referrals to the National Referral Mechanism; a governmental process aiming to identify and support trafficked victims (ECPAT., 2019), discourses remain focussed on a transnational organisation (Gearon., 2018).

This makes the primary focus criminal justice orientated as the prosecution of traffickers and illegal immigration overtakes child welfare concerns (Gearon., 2018). Discourses that are focussed on immigration, like these, suggest that trafficking involves the long-distance movement of children for exploitation. Brayley et al (2011) argue that what is considered a small distance to adults could be significant to a child, or that the child could be driven around for twenty miles and end up two miles from the starting point.

They state that regardless of distance, transportation of the child for sexual purposes was involved. Irrespective of the definition being successful in some cases, it is easier for society to follow long standing discourses that trafficking is an international, organised and planned crime which crosses borders than to change these ideas and beliefs (Brayley et al., 2011).

Having looked at the competing discourses surrounding the definition of internal child trafficking for sexual exploitation it is understandable that there are also difficulties surrounding whether someone is perceived as a victim of the crime.

In the next part of this article we will turn to the discourses surrounding victims of child trafficking for sexual exploitation, after all, for every crime there must be a victim (Britain’s Sex Gangs., 2016).



Janine S White

Janine thrives on bringing into awareness the inequalities and misconceptions of society. Janine hopes of a more tolerant and understanding future for the world