Councils 'lost' 145 child asylum seekers last year
Charity's FoI request reveals young people left care homes and were never seen again
By Owen Bowcott
November 18, 2009 / guardian.co.uk
Almost 150 children and young people went missing without trace from local authority care homes last year, according to returns from local councils. Most were juvenile asylum seekers who had arrived in the UK alone.
The pattern of disappearances suggests they were victims of trafficking operations and were eventually forced into marriage, domestic servitude or sexual exploitation in Britain, the Care Leavers' Association (CLA) warned.
The organisation, which submitted freedom of information requests to more than 200 councils for the survey, identified 145 youngsters who had left care homes without permission and could no longer be contacted between September 2008 and September this year.
That figure is probably an underestimate, the CLA said, because six authorities – Birmingham, Buckinghamshire, Edinburgh, Kent, Norfolk and Waltham Forest – failed to return sufficient data. Kent, in the frontline on immigration and asylum issues, normally has a heavy caseload.
Of those who disappeared, 90% were categorised as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. About 10% were children under the age of 14. Most of their nationalities were not recorded, but several councils mentioned losing track of youngsters from China and Afghanistan.
The CLA's survey follows reports in the Guardian earlier this year of systematic trafficking of Chinese youngsters through a children's home near Heathrow airport. As many as 77 children, according to a leaked intelligence report from the Border and Immigration Agency, had disappeared from the home since March 2006.
At least 40 local authorities admitted that children and young people in their care had gone missing without a trace, yesterday's report said. "Ninety per cent of those missing are unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which raises concerns that many may have become victims of trafficking," it reported.
Victoria Hull, the national development worker of the CLA, said: "It is worrying that so many of the UK's most vulnerable young people continue to disappear into thin air."
Many have been forced into domestic service, brought into the country for forced marriages, made to take part in prostitution or to work in takeaway restaurants, she said. Some were passed on to criminal networks selling pirated DVDs.
"It is imperative that every local authority keeps a central record of all missing looked-after children and their current status, and this is still not happening. As the corporate parent, local authorities have a particular responsibility towards these young people. Any parent who had an untraced child would be frantic with worry – our view is that local authorities should feel the same way.
"Unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people are obviously particularly vulnerable and should be appointed a Cannabis farms and child begging operations often exploit children who have been trafficked into the UK, earlier investigations have found. Detective Inspector Gordon Valentine, who heads Operation Paladin, the Metropolitan police's specialist anti-child trafficking team, has previously said that his officers have worked on cases where DVD-selling rings were linked to child traffickers.