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One in three trafficked children go missing from care

One in three trafficked children go missing from local authority care, according to a report by the charities Every Child Protected Against Trafficking and Missing People.

Based on the analysis of data from Freedom of Information requests to local authorities, the report shows that one in three - 378 out of 1,231 - trafficked children went missing from local authority care in 2020, which is a rise of 25% since 2018, when last reported.

Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK, said: “This report highlights an existing child protection crisis for children who have been trafficked who are already extremely vulnerable and at risk of going missing from care in the UK. Our report shows just how much more at risk trafficked and unaccompanied children are, and should prompt action from the government, local authorities, police and all safeguarding partners to ensure that these children are afforded more protection.”

“It is hard to understand why the government is currently creating laws that will make this problem worse and will put child victims of trafficking at risk of further exploitation. There is still time for the government to shield children from the dangerous proposals on modern slavery in the Nationality and Borders Bill, and to make clear that all decisions must be taken in children’s best interests,” she added.

The charity highlights that:

  • Trafficked children who go missing do so an average of eight times each a year
  • The number of trafficked children who go missing from care has increased by 25% since 2018
  • These figures come as the Nationality and Borders Bill returns to the House of Commons with proposals that will reduce protections and increase the likelihood of trafficked children going missing and as the displacement of 4.3 million children in Ukraine increases concerns about child trafficking and exploitation.

Trafficking is child abuse and trafficked children are victims of modern slavery, and continue to be one of the groups of looked after children most at risk of going missing in the UK.

Trafficked children who went missing in 2020 had an average of eight missing episodes that year compared to the looked after children population of England who had an average of 6.5 missing episodes in the same year.

While one in three trafficked children in the UK went missing in 2020, one in 10 looked after children went missing in England that year, and one in 200 children went missing overall in the UK.

When child victims go missing from care, it can often an indicator that they have been re-trafficked: traffickers identify the child or young person and find ways to remove them from care for the purpose of subjecting them to further exploitation.

The new research demonstrates a significant proportion of trafficked children are already going missing repeatedly, but the Nationality and Borders Bill’s proposals will increase the likelihood of trafficked children going missing from care and being re-trafficked.

The report makes recommendations including:

  • Local authority children’s services should improve data recording systems.
  • Safeguarding partners must develop a culture of trust that should be built with trafficked and unaccompanied children to prevent them from going missing.
  • Law enforcement authorities should consider that due to their circumstances, trafficked or unaccompanied children face increased risks when they are reported missing, and that additional resource should be provided to support these investigations.
  • The Home Office and local authorities must give trafficked and unaccompanied children the benefit of the doubt regarding their age in age assessments.
  • Local authorities must provide safe and appropriate accommodation for all trafficked and unaccompanied children.
  • The Home Office must provide a long-term sustainable solution for every unaccompanied and trafficked child based on their best interests, in order to ensure children’s rights are respected and they can grow into adulthood with stability.

Jane Hunter, Senior Research and Impact Manager at Missing People, said: “This data once again confirms that unaccompanied and trafficked children are at very high risk of going missing from care; somewhere they should be able to be kept safe. Many of these children will have experienced harm, fear and exploitation both before going missing and while missing. What’s more, this data shows no improvement over recent years, with both a higher number and proportion of trafficked children going missing in 2020 than in previous years, and a broadly similar proportion of unaccompanied children going missing. It is very clear that more needs to be done to safeguard these children.”

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