The 'child trafficking' moral panic

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The moral panic surrounding ‘child trafficking’ tends to focus on the conditions of blame,
loss and disrepute. Each of these is explored in the context of the UK ‘child trafficking’
policy and practice framework, examining how contemporary concepts of childhood
underpin the construction of ‘child trafficking’.
Blame is considered in the context of the predominant criminal justice approach to ‘child
trafficking’ whereby children suspected of having been trafficked are more likely to be
treated punitively through an approach which places greater emphasis on immigration
matters over child protection concerns. The welfare approach aiming to protect and
prevent ‘child trafficking’ through the child protection system and the Children Acts is
also critiqued in terms of failing to protect children. These two main approaches in the
current framework position children experiencing trafficking as either passive,
deserving victims or as complicit, undeserving threats, the latter of which are blamed
for their circumstance. This is discussed as a false dichotomy resting on contested
notions of consent and coercion.
The condition of loss is considered in terms of ‘abused children’ and ‘lost’ childhoods.
Underlying concepts are examined of childhood as innocent; the romanticized child as
passive to abuse and wholly dependent on adult protection. Child protection or
‘protectionism’ however, is problematised in terms of increased surveillance and control
coupled with patronising or infantilising older children’s experiences. Risk discourse is
considered in heavily influencing child protection services and the welfare approach in
‘child trafficking’ where deviation from normalised standards of behaviour poses
problems for this group of children.
Disrepute as a feature of moral panic in ‘child trafficking’ considers how a culture of
disbelief of children’s accounts in smuggling and exploitation can result in their punitive
treatment. Research indicates that children’s accounts are not listened to or acted upon
and their credibility is tested. This can result in children referred to as ‘trafficked’
being (re-) victimised by state policy and state actors. The criminalisation of this group
of children, including detention, imprisonment or deportation reflects them being seen
as a threat to societal values and norms. Disrepute is also highlighted in recent cases of
organised sexual exploitation where practitioners misrepresented children’s agency,
‘consent’ and ‘choice’ in exploitative situations, resulting in a lack of protection and the
continuation of abuse.
The subjects of moral panics are not named as the claims-makers, the moral
entrepreneurs or the moral crusaders; their voice is largely absent, especially children
and young people. The topic of our research gaze needs to bring to light those at the
margin to the centre and to provide alternative perspectives directly from people whom
the social issue is concerning. Social research which accepts children and young people as
competent social actors in their own right accepts that their voices are reflective of
their selves and this provides not only a space but also a vehicle to represent alternative
renderings of social issues. Social work research is well placed to redress moral panics
through its moral activity in not only engaging ethically with those marginalised with
difficult social problems, but also to challenge the assumptions underpinning our
understanding of children and young people and childhood and adolescence. Social work
research as a moral endeavour creates an opportunity for the dichotomous conditions
within moral panic: good/evil, heroes/folk devils, praise/blame and fame/disrepute to be
exposed and challenged.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventESRC seminar series Revisiting Moral Panics : A critical examination of 21st century social issues and anxieties. Morals Crusades, Moral Regulation and Morality. - Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, UK United Kingdom
Duration: 21 May 201422 May 2014


ConferenceESRC seminar series Revisiting Moral Panics
Country/TerritoryUK United Kingdom
Internet address


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