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Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Trafficking children
Police staged a series of raids to arrest 21 people allegedly involved in trafficking people from Africa to Britain. They are part of a team investigating the case of Adam - the young boy whose torso was found floating in the Thames.

But the UN children's charity UNICEF believes there could be thousands of children every year brought to Britain simply to be exploited - for benefit fraud, a life of drudgery akin to slavery, or for sex.

Liz Mackean reported.

The discovery in the River Thames of a child's torso two years ago has opened up a mystery that's defied resolution. Nicknamed Adam, he was believed to have been sacrificed in a ritualistic killing. DNA testing took detectives to Southern Nigeria, where the boy was from. Today after a series of raids in London, police believe they may be closer to finding out how he was brought here. 21 people have been arrested and questioned about alleged child trafficking. The Nigerian President, in Downing Street for talks with Tony Blair, says his country is taking the problem seriously.

Nigerian communities in this country should go about legitimate and honourable endeavours. Anything illegitimate, they will face the music, either here or there.

The arrests come as UNICEF prepares to release this film highlighting the growing trade in children. Unlike smuggling, where people pay to be moved to different countries, children have no choice. They're often taken by traffickers under false pretences and condemned to a life slavery or prostitution. The trafficking of children was first picked up as an issue here in the mid-'90s. A few cases came to light involving Nigerian girls. Since then a second route has been identified. Children from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were being brought here for the sex trade. Numbers are impossible but every year it is estimated that perhaps hundreds of children are brought here, cut off from their homes and families, they effectively disappear to an uncertain fate. The US State Department estimates that between 800,000 and 900,000 people are trafficked annually across national borders. The UN puts the number of children trafficked each year, both within countries and abroad, at around 1.2 million. The trade is reckoned to be worth $7-10 billion a year. Alice Ukoko's agency is trying to help three Nigerian children, adrift in this country. A reason for her busy caseload is the tradition in parts of Africa where poor families send their children away in the hope of a better life.

The problem is arising from the fact that, as things get so desperate in Africa, in Nigeria I will say but its Africa because it's the same story across Africa, everyone is anxious to push the child forward so that the child could have better life.

It's a tradition the traffickers are exploiting. Many families simply have no idea what they're letting their children in for. Agencies in Africa are working to warn people that promises of a better future abroad are all too often falsely made.

When the traffickers come and they dangle all kinds of opportunities for their children, whether these children are going abroad or going to the city, they are going to be taken care of, they are going to make money there and they will send money to you. These children actually suffer a lot of Human Rights abuses and it is in effect exactly the poverty they are trying to avoid

Many of the children being trafficked into the country arrive by air. If intercepted, they come under the care of Social Services. Around the country, they're reporting a growing problem.

We certainly had more evidence in Fulham with more cases coming to light - children who are being exploited in domestic service; children who are being exploited in benefit fraud and housing fraud. It is also being reported across London by other local authorities and social services departments that more cases are coming to light.

Immigration officers are being given guidance on how to spot vulnerable children. But support groups say that even when they are picked up they aren't afforded enough protection. The only specialist unit in the country was set up near Gatwick Airport, but that's about to be closed and replaced by individual foster carers.

The system breaks down because there's no protection for the victims of trafficking. They're not treated as victims of crime, they're treated on the whole as illegal immigrants and sometimes when they're lucky it's asylum seekers. There's no protection in place for them. If they were treated as victims of crime, they would have to have protection.

But as long as people hope to find a better life for their children in the UK, local authorities here will need to find a way to tackle trafficking.

We need to find ways and means of providing services which are accessible to these vulnerable young people. We also need to work with government agencies like the immigrations authorities and customs and excise because they are absolutely essential if we are to identify children when they enter the country. Then even beyond that we need the help of our own government to work with governments of the countries where these children are coming from so that we can get the message across to the peoples of those countries to help them understand that the risks their children face when they come to this country.

The UNICEF report makes clear there is no simple solution. It hopes that dragging what has been a hidden tragedy into the light of day will be a first step.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Newsnight's Liz Mackean
reported on UNICEF's report that there could be thousands of children every year brought to Britain simply to be exploited.
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