One in three trafficked children go missing from local authority care

Numbers of trafficked children going missing from local authority care up by 25% in 2020

  • New report from ECPAT UK and Missing People finds that one in three trafficked children go missing from local authority care
  • Trafficked children who go missing do so an average of eight times each a year
  • The number of trafficked children who go missing from care has increased by 25% since 2018
  • These figures come as the Nationality and Borders Bill returns to the House of Commons with proposals that will reduce protections and increase the likelihood of trafficked children going missing and as the displacement of 4.3 million children in Ukraine increases concerns about child trafficking and exploitation

Tuesday 19th April - A new report from ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK) and Missing People finds that one in three (378 of 1,231 – 31%) trafficked children went missing from local authority care in 2020, which is a rise of 25% (24.9%) since 2018, when last reported.

ECPAT UK and Missing People’s analysis of data from Freedom of Information requests to local authorities shows that trafficked children who went missing in 2020 had an average of eight missing episodes that year. This is a significantly higher rate of going missing than the looked after children population of England who had an average of 6.5 missing episodes in the same year.

When Harm Remains highlights that the number of identified and suspected trafficked children in local authority care has increased by 22% over the last few years, from 960 trafficked children in care in 2018 to 1,231 in 2020.

Trafficking is child abuse and trafficked children are victims of modern slavery, and continue to be one of the groups of looked after children most at risk of going missing in the UK. While one in three trafficked children in the UK went missing in 2020, one in 10 looked after children went missing in England that year, and one in 200 children went missing overall in the UK.

When child victims go missing from care, it’s often an indicator that they have been re-trafficked: traffickers identify the child or young person and find ways to remove them from care for the purpose of subjecting them to further exploitation.

These figures have deepened the concerns of expert organisations across the sector, including Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, the Coram Children’s Legal Centre and the Helen Bamber Foundation, who have written to Ministers Michael Gove, Priti Patel and Nadhim Zahawi about the need to include protections for children in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which returns to the House of Commons this Wednesday 20th April. This new data demonstrates a significant proportion of trafficked children are already going missing repeatedly, but the Bill’s proposals will increase the likelihood of trafficked children going missing from care and being re-trafficked.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will also reduce identification and protection for child victims of trafficking, despite the fact that 4.3 million children have recently been displaced by the war in Ukraine1, and widespread concerns are rising about the risk of child exploitation and trafficking at borders.

When Harm Remains: an update report on trafficked and unaccompanied children going missing from care in the UK makes six recommendations to local authorities, safeguarding partners, law enforcement authorities and the Home Office on how they can better protect child victims of trafficking and reduce the rate at which they go missing from the care where they are meant to be safe.

The report follows up on ECPAT UK’s and Missing People’s first study, Heading Back to Harm (which discovered that an alarmingly high number of children go missing from care with many never being found), and the second study, Still in Harm’s Way, which confirmed the findings that trafficked and unaccompanied children are amongst those at greatest risk of going missing in the UK.

2020 was an exceptional year. The Covid-19 public health measures (including lockdowns) instituted in the UK during 2020 led to a general decrease in the number of children reported missing, which makes the increase in number and episodes of missing for trafficked children in the same period all the more concerning.

When Harm Remains also found that 13% of unaccompanied children went missing from care in 2020 (692 of 5,263), which marks a slight decrease from 14% (708 of 4,749) in 2018. It’s likely that the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on migration affected the number of unaccompanied children in local authority care that year. The average number of missing incidents per unaccompanied child as 2.5. 

Case study

Kejsi arrived in the UK from Albania as an unaccompanied child, and was taken into the care of a local authority. He presented with various trafficking indicators including arriving with visible physical injuries, and his social workers were concerned he was at high risk of going missing from care.

At a strategy meeting his social workers raised their concerns that he was being trafficked, and highlighted a real risk he could go missing. However, despite these concerns, they could not persuade a representative from the police to attend as a safeguarding partner.

Kejsi unfortunately went missing from care shortly thereafter. There was no co-ordinated response, with the police determining that there were no reasonable enquiries to make. The circumstances in which Kejsi went missing suggest that he has been re-trafficked and that he is likely facing significant harm. Kejsi remains missing, with few meaningful actions having been taken to find him, despite there being reasonable enquiries to undertake.

Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK, said: “This report highlights an existing child protection crisis for children who have been trafficked who are already extremely vulnerable and at risk of going missing from care in the UK. 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. 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. There is still time for the government to shield children from the dangerous proposals on modern slavery in the Nationality and Borders Bill, and to make clear that all decisions must be taken in children’s best interests.”

Jane Hunter, Senior Research and Impact Manager at Missing People, said: “This data once again confirms that unaccompanied and trafficked children are at very high risk of going missing from care; somewhere they should be able to be kept safe. Many of these children will have experienced harm, fear and exploitation both before going missing and while missing. 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.”


Notes to Editors

Pandora Haydon, Communications and Campaigns Manager, ECPAT UK, [email protected],  07402 113 985


Nationality and Borders Bill

New measures regarding age assessments for children and young people proposed in Part 4 of the Nationality and Borders Bill will increase the number of children needlessly subjected to age assessment procedures, which in turn can lead to an increased number of children going missing.

Irregular immigration status, long periods of waiting for immigration decisions from the Home Office and a lack of long-term solutions for children who have been trafficked to the UK are also key drivers for leaving children vulnerable to going missing and being trafficked or re-trafficked. Part 5 of the Nationality and Borders Bill takes no account of the specific rights that child victims of modern slavery have under international law to secure leave to remain in the UK, recover from trauma and build stable futures.

When Harm Remains recommendations

ECPAT UK and Missing People’s recommendations call for the following action:

  1. Local authority Children’s Services to improve relevant data recording systems
  2. Safeguarding partners to develop a culture of building trust with trafficked and unaccompanied children
  3. Law enforcement authorities to consider the increased risks trafficked and unaccompanied children face when they go missing
  4. The Home Office and local authorities to give trafficked and unaccompanied children the benefit of the doubt regarding their age, and avoid subjecting young people to unnecessary age assessments
  5. Local authorities to provide safe and appropriate accommodation for all trafficked and unaccompanied children
  6. The Home Office to provide long-term and sustainable solutions for trafficked and unaccompanied children, based on each child’s best interests.

The recommendations are available in full on page 17 of the report.


ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK) is a leading children’s rights charity, campaigning and advocating for the rights of children to be protected from all forms of exploitation. We work directly with young victims of trafficking and their voices and experiences informs all our work. ECPAT UK is part of the ECPAT International network, which is present in 103 countries, working to end the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

About Missing People

Missing People is the only charity in the UK which is dedicated to bringing missing children and adults back together with their families. We are here for missing people and their families 365 days a year. Understanding the reasons why people go missing and the impact on families left behind enables Missing People and our partners to provide better services. Missing People’s research team conducts research and evaluation projects on a range of topics.