Heading Back to Harm: Trafficked and unaccompanied children
missing from care in the UK
year, an estimated 1.2 million children worldwide are victims of trafficking.
The UK National Crime Agency estimates that children make up around a quarter
of identified trafficking victims in the UK, and in 2015 nearly 1,000 child
victims were reported.
The UK government, however, believe this to be an underestimate, and suggests
that there are, in fact, closer to 3,000 child victims in the UK each year.
are many established links between trafficking and children going missing. In
the UK, the focus of research in this area has mostly been on the links between
trafficking for sexual exploitation, and missing incidents that occur because
of the exploitation. However, the charities Missing People and ECPAT UK have long recognised that both
trafficked and unaccompanied children who are accommodated by local authorities
are at risk of going missing, and that many remain missing for long periods.
children who are identified as – or suspected to be – victims of trafficking
will enter the care system and become ‘looked after children’, as will many
unaccompanied children who arrive or are discovered in the UK. Looked after children
are much more likely to go missing than children who live at home – while less
than 1% of children are looked after,
these children account for 31% of missing incidents.
local authorities who accommodate these children are aware of their
trafficked/unaccompanied status, they are not obliged to record the numbers of
these children on their systems, or to report the numbers to any national
agencies. This means that it is difficult to know how many trafficked and
unaccompanied children are looked after in the UK. Our recent research, Heading Back to Harm, sought to find
out how many unaccompanied and trafficked children local authorities are
contacted every local authority in the UK – all 217 of them – to ask a series
of questions. They are compelled, under the Freedom of Information Act (2000)
to respond if they can do so in a reasonable amount of time. Many local authorities could not provide any
information. Only 80% of local authorities could tell us about
trafficked children in their care, and 89% about unaccompanied children.
told us, in a large-scale survey, that local authorities sometimes fail to
identify trafficking victims correctly. Our data reflect this; despite London
being a key location for human trafficking, 10 of the 33 London boroughs
reported having no trafficked children in their care. Professionals also told us
that that some children who were sexually exploited were counted only as
victims of child sexual exploitation and not as trafficking victims, even if
they fitted the official definition for trafficking.
inability of some local authorities to identify, count and report mean that the
numbers we obtained must be treated as an underestimate of the true picture.
With this in mind, local authorities told us that they accommodated a total of 590 children identified as – or suspected to be –
trafficked, and 4,744 unaccompanied children.
we try to count how many of these children went missing, again we face the
problem of ineffective recording. Police forces are not all able to count how
many of the children who are reported missing to them are trafficked and/or
unaccompanied. The most recent National Crime Agency report suggests that 113
children went missing in 2014-15 because they were asylum-seekers or because
they were trafficked.
Our research however – also itself an underestimate – found that 167 trafficked and 593 unaccompanied children went
missing in a similar time period.
data showed that 28% (167) of the 590 trafficked looked after children, and 13%
(593) of the unaccompanied looked after children went missing at least once.
They stayed missing for longer than other missing children too. National UK
figures show that 2% of missing children are away for more than one week;
in comparison, 32% of trafficked and unaccompanied children were missing for
more than one week.
45 of 217 local authorities were able to tell us how many of their trafficked
and unaccompanied children had gone missing from care and not been found.
Across these 45 areas, 207 children remained
who go missing, even for very short periods of time, face significant risks.
Trafficked and unaccompanied children are no different and, indeed, may face
increased risks compared with other missing children. Through our study we
explored why trafficked and unaccompanied children go missing, both to help
understand how to prevent missing incidents, and to appreciate what risks they
asked both professionals and young people who had been trafficked, why
trafficked and unaccompanied children go missing. A key reason, identified by
both professionals and young people, was the control
and influence that traffickers continue to exert over looked after children.
Whether by maintaining communication and a grooming influence, or by holding a child
in debt bondage, or by threatening family members, traffickers may persuade
young people to leave their care placement. These children are then at risk of
re-trafficking and exploitation. Unaccompanied children who go missing are all
at risk of trafficking and exploitation, and in the UK Statutory Guidance from
the Department for Education (2014) states that: “unaccompanied migrant or asylum-seeking children who go missing
immediately after becoming looked after should be treated as potential victims of
reasons suggested by young people include: lack of trust in adults; lack of
consistent support; lack of connection with foster carers; feeling isolated;
lack of engagement with school; fear of not being believed; uncertainty around
their immigration status; and stress caused by official procedures such as age
assessments and interviews. Professionals suggested many similar reasons, also
adding that officials’ failure to identify that a child has been trafficked,
and poor protection measures, may lead to failure to prevent them going
also explored issues of exploitation, including child sexual exploitation and
exploitation in gang activity. In the UK, the links between vulnerability to
exploitation and children going missing are well understood. In our study,
however, professionals told us that British children in particular may not be
identified as victims of trafficking if they are, first and foremost, perceived
as victims of sexual exploitation, or criminal offenders.
research study highlighted three main ways in which trafficked and
unaccompanied children may be better protected and prevented from going
missing: i) creating a culture of trust; ii) responding effectively to risk
and; iii) coordinating the response.
Creating a culture of trust
encounter a child has with professionals and carers must be based on respect,
and their accounts should be given credence. Services should aim to facilitate
peer support, either face to face or using written or visual media. Children
must be given information about the risks of going missing, and ways to access
help if they do leave – including information about Missing People’s 24/7 Runaway Helpline, available on
officers, social workers and foster carers who accommodate trafficked or
unaccompanied children must all be given training about the things children may
have experienced, the risks they face, and keeping them safe.
are also calling on the government to introduce a system on legal Guardians for
trafficked children across the UK, available until the age of 21.
Responding to risk
order to keep children safe, professionals and carers must conduct thorough and
appropriate risk assessments, and share information with relevant agencies. All
trafficked and unaccompanied children who go missing must receive a ‘high risk’
response, regardless of any criminal activity in which they may be involved,
and they should not be deprioritised when they reach the age of 18.
and unaccompanied children must be placed in safe and appropriate accommodation
when they are first encountered by professionals, and sufficient accommodation
must be available in all areas. Children’s views and voices should be taken
into account when making plans for their care, and professionals and carers
must ensure that children understand the processes to which they are subject.
Coordinating the response
we requested data from local authorities, many could not provide us with good
quality information. This illustrates a problem with local authority recording
which is mirrored in police forces. Without good quality data, statutory
agencies are unable to assess their local situations, allocate resources and
respond effectively. We are calling for police and local authorities to improve
their recording systems accordingly, and to report the resulting data
nationally. Local and national agencies must work together to address the
problem at local, regional and national levels, and the statutory sector must
work with voluntary sector organisations to support children and keep them safe
stated otherwise, the information in this blog post is cited from Heading Back
to Harm (2016) www.missingpeople.org.uk/headingbacktoharm
Lucy Holmes, Research
Manager, Missing People, UK
Lucy has worked in the field of missing
persons since 2007 and has conducted research into topics as diverse as
dementia, mental health, the experience of family members when someone is
missing, gang-involvement and young people, and trafficked, unaccompanied and
separated children going missing from care. www.missingpeople.org.uk/research