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Heading Back to Harm: Trafficked and unaccompanied children missing from care in the UK


Every year, an estimated 1.2 million children worldwide are victims of trafficking [1]. 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[2]. 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 [3].


There 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.


Many 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[4], these children account for 31% of missing incidents [5].


While 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 accommodating.


We 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) [6] 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.


Professionals 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.


The 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.


When 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[7]. Our research however – also itself an underestimate – found that 167 trafficked and 593 unaccompanied children went missing in a similar time period.


Our 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 [8]; in comparison, 32% of trafficked and unaccompanied children were missing for more than one week.


Only 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 unfound.


Children 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 might face.


We 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 trafficking[9].


Other 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 missing.


We 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.


Our 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

Every 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 116 000.


Police 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.


We 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

In 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.


Trafficked 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

When 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 from harm.



Unless stated otherwise, the information in this blog post is cited from Heading Back to Harm (2016)



Author biography

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.

[1] International Labor Office (2002) Every Child Counts: New Global Estimates on Child Labour 

[2] National Crime Agency (2016) National Referral Mechanism – End of Year Summary 2015  

[4] Department for Education (2015) Children looked after in England (including adoption and care leavers) years ending 31 March 2015

[5] National Crime Agency Missing Persons Bureau (2016) Missing Persons Data Report 2014/15

[7] National Crime Agency Missing Persons Bureau (2016) Missing Persons Data Report 2014/15

[8] Ibid.

[9] Department for Education (2014) Statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care, p24