Trafficked children have been found working in illegal cannabis factorie
At least four children a week who are seeking asylum go missing from the care of local authorities, a BBC investigation has discovered.
A total of 330 children aged between nine and 17 vanished between April 2008 and August 2009.
Social workers believe many children were targeted for prostitution by traffickers exploiting asylum rules.
Home Office minister Meg Hillier told the BBC: “The figures are still too high, worryingly high.”
The exclusive figures were gathered using Freedom of Information requests to local authorities by The Report and voluntary group the Care Leavers’ Association.
Twenty percent of the 200-plus authorities contacted reported asylum-seeker children going missing from their care.
A lack of data means it is not possible to say how many of these children have been found.
Martin Houghton-Brown, chief executive of the charity Missing People, said: “Huge numbers of local authorities don’t take the issue seriously and then, when the child goes missing, we have no records at all.
“No photographs, no real names and no documents.”
According to immigration officers the traffickers are ruthless and well-organised.
A source from the UK Border Agency told The Report that the traffickers even lurk around airport terminals to find out where the children are being taken.
It is claimed they are told to claim asylum and are then placed in local authority care – from where many then disappear.
Rachel Stevenson from the UK Border Agency heads a specialist team of police and immigration officers at Heathrow.
The Paladin team has been identifying potential victims of trafficking for more than four years.
WHO ARE THESE CHILDREN?
The children come from all over the world, via a variety of routes
Most come from Vietnam, West Africa and China
Many Vietnamese boys end up working in illegal cannabis factories while West African girls risk being forced into brothels or domestic servitude
There is evidence of Chinese children working in catering or selling DVDs door to door
The British Government has signed the European convention on human trafficking and launched a UK wide action plan
The UK Human Trafficking Centre has been running for more than three years
“We have made it an extremely hostile environment – where there is a risk of exploitation we are intervening,” she said.
“I feel we’re on the winning side at the moment.”
But social worker Lynne Chitty, who is a consultant on child trafficking, said she believed the real level of the problem was probably higher than the BBC figures, when the number of ports of entry into the UK was taken into consideration.
She said the children would be under pressure to contact the traffickers by mobile phone as soon as they arrived in the UK.
“If they don’t go [to the traffickers], their families are under threat and they are under threat,” she added.
Ms Chitty said even if the children stay in local authority care they could still be victims of exploitation by the traffickers. She cited the example of four girls in care who were taken to work as prostitutes each day by the trafficker.
LISTEN TO THE REPORT
“The traffickers are saying, ‘thank you social services for paying the rent – we’ll just exploit them from their accommodation’,” she added.
Meg Hillier, the minister responsible for children in the immigration system, told the BBC: “It is a concern and unfortunately children in this situation are very vulnerable.
“Whatever is done to protect them, there will be people intent on doing them harm. We need to work with local authorities to see if there are better ways of doing this [protecting the children].”
But the minister said locking the children in secure accommodation would “send a negative message” to them.
She said it was “alarming” that some children disappeared with no records.
The Report is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 21 January at 2000 GMT. You can also listen via the BBC
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