Thursday, 20th December 2018

Two leading UK charities, ECPAT UK and Missing People, have released a new report warning that trafficked and unaccompanied children are 30 times more likely to go missing than other children their age. Additionally, in 2017, trafficked and unaccompanied children went missing from care on average 7 times, highlighting grave safeguarding failures on the part of local authorities.

Still in Harm's Way follows on from the charities' ground-breaking Heading Back to Harm report, which highlighted the alarming number of trafficked and unaccompanied children going missing from care - with many never found.

Using new data, Still in Harm’s Way reports that in 2017:

  • Over 1 in 4 (27%) of trafficked children were reported as going missing from care (244 of 910)
  • 15% of unaccompanied children were reported as going missing from care (742 of 4,963)
  • 169 children had not been found; almost 20% of the total number of trafficked and unaccompanied children reported missing (986)

The charities found that trafficked and unaccompanied children are much more likely to go missing than other children, including other looked after children. Over 1 in 6 (986 of 5,873) of trafficked and unaccompanied children were reported missing in 2017; nearly 30 times the rate of other children, and almost double the rate of other looked after children, of whom just over 1 in 10 are reported missing. This highlights the failure of local authorities to adequately safeguard these children, who are already extremely vulnerable.

In 2017, each child victim of trafficking that was reported missing went missing on average 7.2 times – a huge 200% increase from 2014-15 (2.4 times). Repeat missing episodes are key indicator of heightened vulnerability, so this worrying statistic suggests safeguarding responses may be getting worse.

In comparison with the previous research, there was a 54% increase in the number of children reported as identified or suspected victims of trafficking (910), highlighting possible improved recording and reporting practices by local authorities. However, the research found that accurate data remains an issue as many local authorities were still unable to provide the data requested. What’s more, there is still no systematic recording and reporting of these issues at the local authority level and no central Government data collection or reporting to assess trends and ensure effective interventions. 

Vietnamese children comprised the highest number of trafficked and unaccompanied children recorded as going missing from care. The second largest group of trafficked children who went missing were British, reflecting internal trafficking and exploitation. 

As the previous report found, there are numerous reasons why these children go missing. These include a lack of trust in authorities and carers, the continuing control of a trafficker or exploiter, a lack of appropriate accommodation, uncertain immigration status and fear of immigration control.

As one young person who went missing from care explained:

I can see why young people run away to their trafficker.
It is ‘better the devil you know’

Urgent action must be taken

Following these alarming findings, the charities say action should be urgently taken to improve safeguarding at the local level. This must include mandatory training for social workers and other frontline workers responding to missing children, the provision of safe and appropriate accommodation placements, specialist guardianship for all unaccompanied and trafficked children, and a multi-agency decision-making process to ensure a long term, stable future for each child. Furthermore, authorities must ensure systematic data collection and reporting on this issue.

Catherine Baker, Senior Research, Policy and Campaigns Officer at ECPAT UK, says

“The latest data paints a bleak picture of continuing failures to safeguard these children. Ultimately, each missing incident represents a safeguarding failure. Too often these children are treated as criminals or immigration offenders, rather than vulnerable children requiring support. Too often, they are placed in unsafe accommodation, or have not been made to feel safe by those responsible for their care. Each one of these children deserves specialist support, as well as an independent, legal guardian to support them, yet neither are currently guaranteed for every child. We also need every local authority to be systematically recording this information, with central Government collating and reporting on it regularly. The latest figures should be a wakeup call to this Government, to urgently prioritise resourcing frontline services so that these extremely vulnerable children are protected from harm.”

Jane Hunter, Senior Research and Impact Manager at Missing People, says

“This report shows that trafficked and unaccompanied children continue to be failed by the system which should be safeguarding and protecting them. While every child is at risk when missing, trafficked and unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable, and may go missing back into a highly exploitative situation to those they were trafficked by, or others. The fact that these children are going missing in such high proportions and so frequently points to the fact that opportunities to identify risk and put measures in place to keep them safe are being missed by local authorities and other professionals. This leaves these children extremely vulnerable and at high risk.

“Missing People is concerned by these figures, and by the fact that some local authorities are still unable to provide information about the total numbers of trafficked children in their care or the number who go missing. It is worrying that some do not know the picture in their local area, and that there remains no centrally collated, national data allowing a country-wide understanding about this shocking situation.”


Press contact

  • Sinead Geoghegan, Communications and Media Officer, ECPAT UK, 0203 903 4630, [email protected]

Notes to editors

Still in Harm’s Way is based on responses to Freedom of Information Requests (FOIs), sent to all local authorities in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, asking how many trafficked or unaccompanied children went missing from care in the calendar year of 2017. Missing People and ECPAT UK collaborated with University College London on the data collection aspect of this research.

Missing People and ECPAT UK have carried out analysis of these figures by local authority area, so if you are interested in data provided by a particular local authority, please get in touch.

Please note the Still in Harm's Way report was republished on 12th August 2019 with slightly amended figures due to data entry errors identified. There was no significant change to the report's findings. An earlier version of this news item contained the incorrect figures.