Five Ways The Story of Oliver Twist Looks Like Trafficking Today


As I learned about modern-day slavery over the last few months, I recalled Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist. The novel is a fictional tale of a child who endures mistreatment in an orphanage and an apprenticeship before being trafficked into illegal labor. He tries to escape and is eventually aided by two elderly people who shelter him, uncover his family history, and restore his inheritance. In my reading, I found several ways Oliver’s story correlates with child trafficking in the United Kingdom today.

1. Oliver is alone.


Oliver’s mother dies shortly after his birth. With no relative or guardian to take him in, he immediately becomes a ward of the state. When he is 10-years-old, he walks alone for dozens of miles from his small parish to the big city of London, risking death from the travel conditions and danger from malicious passersby.

“He felt frightened at first, for the wind moaned dismally over the empty fields: and he was cold and hungry, and more alone than he had ever felt before.”

This vulnerability to trafficking continues today when children immigrate from abroad unaccompanied, migrate between cities unaccompanied, run away from home, or are separated from their parents or guardians for other reasons.

2. Oliver feels isolated.

When Oliver leaves the orphanage for an apprenticeship with an undertaker, he realizes he is alone in the world.

“The boy had no friends to care for, or to care for him. The regret of no recent separation was fresh in his mind; the absence of no loved and well-remembered face sank heavily into his heart.”

Oliver’s trafficker punishes him for a temporary escape to a sympathetic household by locking him inside.

“And so Oliver remained all that day, and for the greater part of many subsequent days, seeing nobody, between early morning and midnight, and left during the long hours to commune with his own thoughts. Which, never failing to revert to his kind friends, and the opinion they must long ago have formed of him, were sad indeed.”

This feeling of isolation can prevent present-day children from attempting to leave their traffickers.

3. Oliver goes missing from his caregivers.

Oliver is malnourished in the orphanage then sent to an apprenticeship where he is physically abused. He runs away then and later flees from being trafficked into illegal pickpocketing.

According to the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), a similar thing occurs in the UK that can lead to trafficking.

It is estimated that 60% of unaccompanied children placed in local authority care go missing, most within 48 hours of being placed into care. This is due to the lack of accommodation and the lack of commonly agreed safety and protection standards…Children that go missing in one part of the UK can end up exploited in another part, without any connection being made.”

To prevent this situation, law enforcement, educators, social workers, health care workers and other officials have received training, and their offices have been advised by GRETA to develop ways to exchange information about potential trafficking victims.

4. Oliver receives inconsistent treatment within the justice system.

When Oliver is arrested for stealing a handkerchief, the police officer assumes he is guilty though the victim of the theft is unsure. During Oliver’s hearing, he is treated no differently from an adult, receives no legal representation, and is expected to defend himself in the presence of the victim. Oliver would have been sentenced to three months of hard labor if an eyewitness had not arrived to declare his innocence.

Today, the UK has policies that would prevent Oliver from being alone on his journey through the justice system. Established in 2009, and reinforced by the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the UK’s National Referral Mechanism is responsible for locating and identifying potential victims of trafficking. Although some authorities vary in their consistency of making referrals and keeping records, police and immigration officers, as well as, local officials and authorized non-profits may make referrals. Nonetheless, the Modern Slavery Act requires that if child trafficking is suspected, an independent advocate is assigned to represent and support the child, as stated here: “A person appointed as an independent child trafficking advocate for a child must promote the child’s well-being and act in the child’s best interests.”

5. Oliver receives aftercare, advocacy, and justice.

Two benefactors tend to Oliver’s physical and emotional needs while thoroughly investigating his past. His identity and rights are restored, and his trafficker is convicted and punished. Today, the UK has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which urges states to respond to child trauma with an integrated approach. Article 39 of this requires that, “…all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim…in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.”

Like Oliver, 387 million children live in extreme poverty today. Unlike the 19th century, national and international policies ensure provision of basic needs and protection from exploitation to all children. NGOs and non-profit organizations collaborate with governments and supplement their social services, justice systems, and public awareness campaigns.

Two individuals responded to Oliver’s suffering. This year, thousands of advocates across the globe fought modern-day slavery through Dressember. The funds raised support multiple organizations because this fight requires work from many angles.

Will you join us next year to prevent and restore someone else from atrocities like those Oliver Twist experienced?

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Join us on April 13th for our second annual 'You Can Do Anything in a Dress (or Tie)' 5k. Run in our Los Angeles 5k/Yoga event or run virtually in your own city! Set up your free campaign page and purchase tickets for the LA event today!

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About the Author

Krystal Grant.png

With undergraduate majors in piano and Spanish from Vanderbilt University, and a Ph.D. in composition from Stony Brook University, Krystal J. F. Grant uses her music and words to reckon with society's brokenness. Her passion for fair-trade fashion led her to Dressember, and her childhood in Alabama guides her commitment to freedom throughout the world. She and her husband enjoy visiting museums and National Parks, or just making popcorn and watching anime at home.