Serious shortcomings in the identification of and support for unaccompanied and trafficked children across the UK and Europe continue to endanger thousands of vulnerable young people, a leading children’s rights charity, ECPAT UK, has said today.

In a written evidence statement, ECPAT UK said unaccompanied children in Europe, already placed in precarious conditions of what one charity has described as “absolute desperation”, are at an increased risk of trafficking, exploitation and missing due to a host of pan-European child protection failures.

A lack of a coordinated response and the failure to systematically collect data on and identify trafficked and unaccompanied children means there is little understanding of these risks, leaving children deprived of rights that could assist to protect them and create durable solutions for their futures.

While Europol has estimated that there are as many as 10,000 ‘missing’ or unaccounted for children, there is a lack of reliable data about the scale of unaccompanied children in the EU or the numbers of trafficked children in each country. For example, an ECPAT UK research project has uncovered large disparities in data collection between countries, with only eight trafficked children reported in Belgium compared to 982 identified in the UK.

Moreover, there remains a lack of intelligence about how the two issues of unaccompanied children and trafficking intersect. ECPAT UK has encountered cases of young people subjected to exploitation as part of the ‘fee’ for travel, but hard evidence about how trafficking gangs target vulnerable unaccompanied children remains uncollected.  

This is further complicated by the fact that many trafficked children arrive ‘accompanied’, meaning they arrive with an adult who Is not a primary caregiver or guardian. In many cases, this adult may be a trafficker or an agent. A failure to understand this concept means many children are not identified as trafficked at the border or in-country.

ECPAT UK has identified a number of UK-specific issues contributing to the growing scandal, including a Home Office decision to not roll out a national Child Trafficking Advocates scheme, the failure to prevent trafficked children going missing from UK care, risks posed by the new Immigration Bill, failures to identify a person as a child and the failure to link the National Referral Mechanism to guaranteed support for children, such as specialist accommodation, an independent guardian and counselling. 

ECPAT UK is calling for a new Action Plan on Unaccompanied Children that reflects the current situation/crisis and incorporates a strong focus on identifying child victims of trafficking and those at risk of exploitation and missing.

CLICK HERE to read the full evidence response