Child trafficking victims and unaccompanied children are going missing from local authority care at an “alarming” rate according to a new report, which reveals that in one year, nearly 30% of all UK child trafficking victims and 13% of unaccompanied children disappeared from care services.
New research by child trafficking NGO Ecpat UK and the charity Missing People has found that 167 of the 590 children suspected or identified as child trafficking victims in the year from September 2014 to 2015 vanished from foster and care homes across the country.
An additional 593 of the 4,744 unaccompanied children placed under the protection of local authorities also went missing at least once in the same time period. Of the 760 trafficked or unaccompanied children who disappeared from care, 207 have never been found.
The new data, drawn largely from freedom of information requests to 217 local authorities across the UK, shows that Thurrock, Hillingdon, Croydon, Kent County Council and Surrey had the highest numbers of trafficked and unaccompanied children who were unaccounted for. One local authority reported that 22 child trafficking victims had gone missing in the recorded time period.
The majority of child trafficking victims who vanished from care are from Vietnam, Albania and the UK. Most of the unaccompanied children who went missing are from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Albania and Vietnam.
Despite the high numbers, Ecpat says that the real scale of the UK’s missing child trafficking victims is still not accurately reflected in the data.
Chloe Setter, Ecpat UK’s head of advocacy and policy, said there was “huge concern” that only 45 of the 217 local authorities asked for information were able or willing to provide data on the numbers of children whose whereabouts were still unknown.
“I think what is most alarming about this survey isn’t the data we’ve received, it is the data that we haven’t,” said Setter.
“Twenty per cent of the local authorities we contacted could not even report how many children in their care were [formally] identified or suspected of being trafficked. Only 10 local authorities could report the nationalities of the trafficked children who had disappeared. It is unacceptable that we can’t get a clear picture on how many exploited children are simply falling off the radar and, in the case of trafficked children, presumed to be back in the hands of their exploiters. These are hundreds of children who have simply vanished from places where they should have been protected.”
The report also underscores issues with identification and recording practices. Despite London being a prime destination for human traffickers, 10 of 33 local authorities reported zero trafficked children, and an additional four local authorities were unable to provide any information.
“There has to be an improved data recording system put in place for trafficked and missing children,” said Setter. “Many of the authorities we asked couldn’t even search for these children in their existing databases.”
The report cites various reasons for the children going missing, from the failure of the government to identify trafficked children, to the influence and control of traffickers, lack of trust in adults and lack of consistent support. Poor protection measures, as well as asylum and immigration concerns, were also noted.
Ecpat and Missing Children say that in order to stem the flow of exploited children disappearing from care services, the child protection system must be expanded to introduce specific training on child trafficking and unaccompanied children and investment in appropriate accommodation and support services.
Lynne Chitty, UK care director at the anti-trafficking charity Love146, said she was not surprised by the findings of the report and expected the numbers to continue to rise if urgent safeguarding policies were not implemented immediately.
“Every week we see children going missing, most within 24 hours of arriving in care, and we know child trafficking victims are largely going back to their traffickers,” she said. “Many are in debt bondage or have been given a number to call as soon as they get taken into care. They aren’t getting the protection, services or support they need to stop them from believing that their traffickers are the only option for them here.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “It is vital that children in care are protected from harm. We have already strengthened regulations on children’s homes, and local authorities have a duty to tell us about all incidents of young people going missing.
“But we know trafficked and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are especially vulnerable. That’s why we have commissioned specialist training for those caring for them, committed to an independent advocate in each area to help champion their rights and outlined clear plans for a new government strategy to look at their particular needs, including reviewing the accommodation available.”
QotD: “Child trafficking victims disappearing from UK care at ‘alarming’ rate”