Trafficked children ‘missing’ from care by Scots councils

Dozens of children have been trafficked to Scotland with several going missing from care, says a new report.

Minors from Vietnam and Afghanistan were among nearly 200 child trafficking victims in the UK who went missing from local authority care in 2017.

The report was co-written by Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (Ecpat UK) and Missing People and is called Still in Harm’s Way. It was based on information that councils gave to the charities under freedom of information law.

The study revealed the number of trafficked children in the UK in 2017 and the total going missing from care. Of 1,015 trafficked children in the care of UK councils, around one quarter – 246 – went missing.

The report said 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.

The council told Ecpat that the number who went missing from its care was “less than five” but when we asked for the exact figure, it cited the 1998 Data Protection Act. “We are unable to provide you with the exact number as we are concerned that this release might allow for the identification of any of the people who may be involved,” said a council spokesperson.

“If any child within our care is reported missing the council follows an agreed set of procedures which includes contacting Police Scotland. An internal investigation is conducted thereafter and our procedures are reviewed and amended accordingly.”

Children suffer as reports of human trafficking in Scotland rise

The City of Edinburgh Council was eighth highest in UK for children identified as being trafficked, with 24 minors in its care. The council said the information provided to Ecpat in its freedom of information reply was incorrect and that none of the 24 trafficked children in its care in 2017 went missing.

But the council added that one male trafficking victim aged 17 years old went missing from care last year, adding it contacted Police Scotland whose investigation concluded he had moved to England where he was living with friends.

Ecpat’s report said one child went missing from the care of West Lothian Council in 2017.

A council spokesperson said in response: “A suspected trafficking victim was placed in our care following a police operation. He gave his age as 15, but an age assessment was later carried out that considered him to be 18 or over.

“Police were informed when he went missing from supported accommodation, and an investigation was launched. Those living in supported accommodation are free to come and go as they please, and no evidence was found to suggest further trafficking took place.

“He was found by police a few weeks later in England. He was treated as an adult following the conclusion of the age assessment and indicated he did not wish to return to West Lothian, which ended our involvement in this case.”

Both Dumfries and Galloway and South Lanarkshire councils had three trafficked children in their care, while Aberdeen City Council had two.

Glasgow looked after 94 unaccompanied children in 2017 but none were confirmed as having been trafficked.

It’s outrageous that some of the most vulnerable children in the country have gone missing while in the care of local councils. Ross Greer, Green MSP

Ecpat said the children were trafficked to the UK from places such as Vietnam, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Africa. They go missing from care for a number of reasons including poor protection measures and the fear of not being believed by the authorities and deported, the organisation explained.

The control and influence that traffickers hold over children is another major problem.

Ecpat praised Scotland’s councils for their care of trafficked children, in comparison to the situation in England where 24 per cent went missing from local authority care.

Ecpat said: “Scotland’s devolved children’s services have a markedly different approach to that of England and Wales. It is understood that their strong child protection model may be responsible for the lower numbers of children going missing in Scotland, and that good practice can potentially be learned from the Scottish model. Scotland also has a strong system of independent guardianship in place for all unaccompanied children.”

Ross Greer, Green MSP for West of Scotland, said he would raise the report’s findings with the Scottish Government: “It’s outrageous that some of the most vulnerable children in the country have gone missing while in the care of local councils,” he said.

“These young people have been through trauma the rest of us cannot imagine and it would be heartbreaking to think they have been failed by the state after being liberated from trafficking. Given this is happening across the UK, I hope that MPs will investigate it urgently. I raised support for human trafficking victims with the Scottish Government on Thursday but will be following up this week with these new revelations.”

Greer continued: “As an East Dunbartonshire MSP, I’m really disturbed by what looks like an evasive answer by the council to serious questions about children potentially missing while in their care. I’ll be demanding answers on this immediately and if they do not give them, will ask Scottish Government ministers to intervene.”

It is completely unacceptable these crimes are taking place in modern Scotland and we are determined to do all we can to support victims and target perpetrators. Humza Yousaf, Justice Secretary

Scottish Government Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, said: “Human trafficking and exploitation are appalling abuses of human rights, leaving victims highly traumatised and living in fear. It is completely unacceptable these crimes are taking place in modern Scotland and we are determined to do all we can to support victims and target perpetrators.

“Keeping children safe from abuse and exploitation is a key priority and we fully support the work of social services and Police Scotland to identify children at risk of harm and tackle those who prey on them. New powers to tackle human trafficking and exploitation in Scotland came into effect in 2017.

“Scotland’s agencies work tirelessly to tackle all forms of child sexual abuse and it is important that perpetrators know that exploitation in any form will never be tolerated in Scotland.”

Detective chief inspector Rory Hamilton, from Police Scotland’s human trafficking unit, said: “Scotland has well developed child protection mechanisms to ensure that any child at risk of harm receives the support they need and this includes children identified as potential trafficking victims. We will investigate all reports of missing children and will take appropriate action to ensure the child is returned safe and well.

“We have a dedicated national human trafficking unit as well as specially trained officers in each of our divisions who are responsible for investigating all forms of trafficking of both adults and children. People continue to be trafficked into and around Scotland. We will continue to work with partners nationally and internationally to tackle the organised crime gangs responsible for exploiting and trafficking both children and adults.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, Liam McArthur MSP, said: “Trafficked children have been through an unfathomable ordeal and it’s vital that support and assistance are there for them when they need it most. Councils in Scotland generally do an excellent job of keeping track of at risk children and young people but it’s important that no one is allowed to slip through the cracks.”

The UN’s latest Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018 said the United Kingdom reported a greater number of male victims than female in 2016.

The UK reported having found more victims of trafficking for forced labour than for sexual exploitation, and there were more victims from the Baltic countries, Latvia and Lithuania. The percentage of child victims – 25 per cent – has not changed significantly since 2014.

A version of this story was published in the Sunday Mail on 13 January 2019.

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