Nearly 600 unaccompanied children arrived in Scotland over three years, including 88 who had been trafficked, and at least 11 young people have gone missing from care, The Ferret can reveal.
The missing include six children plus four young people aged 18 years old and one aged 20, according to the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC). The number of children going missing from local authority care across the UK has risen by 25 per cent.
Charities claim the UK is in the grip of a “child protection crisis” and more needs to be done to safeguard vulnerable unaccompanied children. The UK Government said local authorities are “responsible for all looked-after children in their area” and have a statutory duty to protect children.
The new figures obtained by The Ferret follow the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill finally being passed as law at Westminster. Critics claim the new legislation – dubbed by some as the ‘anti-refugee bill’ – will increase the likelihood of trafficked children going missing.
Trafficking is where children and young people are tricked, forced or persuaded to leave their homes and transported to be exploited, forced to work or sold. Children are trafficked for sexual exploitation, benefit fraud, forced marriage, forced labour and domestic slavery.
It was reported last week that child asylum seekers are fleeing London out of fear of being sent to Rwanda, as part of UK Government policy on immigration. The multi-million-pound deal between the UK and Rwanda, will see asylum seekers in the UK flown 4,000 miles away to have their asylum claims processed by the east African country.
The Home Office said unaccompanied children will not be among those deported to Rwanda, but charities fear under-18s could still be caught up in plans.
Refugee charities also warn that the Bill reduces protections at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine has displaced at least 4.3 million children, who may be at risk from trafficking and exploitation.
Minors from Vietnam and Afghanistan – among other nationalities – have been trafficked to Scotland in recent years. Last year five children feared to be trafficking victims were discovered in Scotland.
Children and young people under the age of 18 who arrive in Scotland without parents or guardians are defined as Unaccompanied Children (UC). The Scottish Government says that each month “as many as five UCs arrive in Scotland, some of whom claim asylum, and in many cases may have been trafficked”.
The charity ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK) told The Ferret that 156 unaccompanied children arrived in Scotland in 2018, followed by 221 in 2019, and 209 in 2020. At least 88 children had been trafficked, the charity added.
ECPAT obtained the information by submitting freedom of information requests to every local authority in the UK. It found that one in three trafficked children go missing from local authority care in England – a 25 per cent increase on 2018.
Scottish local authorities were asked to provide figures on missing children but ECPAT told The Ferret that councils “weren’t able to give information”. Scottish Refugee Council – which runs the Scottish Guardianship Service to support unaccompanied and trafficked children – disclosed that 11 youngsters went missing from 2017 to 2020.
ECPAT’s latest report, in conjunction with Missing People, is called When Harm Remains. It is an update on trafficked and unaccompanied children going missing from care in the UK. The figures show the number of children in care suspected of being victims of trafficking or modern slavery rose by 22 per cent, from 960 in 2018 to 1,231 in 2020. The number of children who went missing from care rose by 25 per cent over the same period.
There was also a 10 per cent rise in the number of unaccompanied children in local authority care – from 4,749 in 2018 to 5,263 in 2020 – with 13 per cent going missing in 2020. ECPAT’s last report was in 2019.
The Ferret reported then that 46 trafficked children were under the care of Scottish councils in 2017, and that up to five minors may have gone missing. Up to four children under the care of East Dunbartonshire Council may have gone missing in 2017 but the council refused to confirm a figure or disclose further details.
One of the key findings in ECPAT’s new report is that there is no central UK government statistic for the numbers of trafficked and unaccompanied children who go missing from care. “Local authorities hold this data, but many may not record it in an accessible format, the report said.“A key finding of our reports was a lack of consistency in how local authorities identify and record child trafficking.”
Patricia Durr, chief executive of ECPAT UK, said the report highlighted an “existing child protection crisis” for children who have been trafficked. “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,” she added.
“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.”
Before they go missing
Jane Hunter, senior researcher at Missing People, said the new data confirms that unaccompanied and trafficked children are at a “very high risk” of going missing from care.
“Many of these children will have experienced harm, fear and exploitation both before going missing and while missing,” she added. “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.”
Jillian McBride, children’s policy officer at the Scottish Refugee Council, said it was critical that child victims of trafficking are met with effective child safeguarding responses. Pointing out that the Scottish Guardianship Service supported around 350-450 young people for most of 2020, McBride said there appear to be fewer unaccompanied asylum-seeking children going missing from local authorities in Scotland than other parts of the UK.
“This has been the case for many years,” she added. “Everyday, our Guardians hear of the unimaginable ordeals these children have been through, many have been multiply exploited en route to Scotland as well as being exploited in Scotland. This results in high degrees of trauma and profound barriers to children disclosing what they have been through, and indeed what they may still be going through.”
McBride said Scotland could make improvements in monitoring child protection processes, particularly whether they “loosen the grip of traffickers” on this vulnerable group. “It is only when we collect the right data and reflect upon it that we can really begin to grapple with how effective our systems are and whether they need to be strengthened or complimented.”
A spokesperson for the UK Government said it takes the issue of any child going missing “extremely seriously” and that it works closely with local authorities to “ensure vulnerable children are supported appropriately”.
They added: “In the concerning occasions when a child goes missing, they operate missing persons protocols with other local agencies, including the police, to ensure their whereabouts are known and that they are safe.”
It emerged last week that a growing number of under-18s seeking asylum in Scotland were unlawfully recorded as adults and left in hostels for months with no help. It leaves young asylum seekers in limbo, unable to access benefits because their age is disputed. Support agencies said it meant they were vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and street homelessness.
A Scottish Government Spokesperson said: “Work is ongoing with operational and third sector partners to support the delivery of a coordinated safeguarding response, including publishing updated practitioner guidance to drive best practise and supporting the recent launch of a pilot in Glasgow which is helping to better identify and support possible victims of child trafficking.
“We also continue to fund the Scottish Guardianship Service which provides practical help and support to unaccompanied children and victims of trafficking.”
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities was asked to comment but did not respond.
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