Shine A Light

Hundreds of children are disappearing from local authority care

Already vulnerable children are going missing at an alarming rate. What is being done to protect them? 

Maeve McClenaghan
8 December 2015

Child Silhouette (Natasha Hanova, Flickr / Some rights reserved)

Karim arrived in the UK aged 16, alone and fleeing terrible hardship. He’d left his native Morocco four years earlier after a childhood filled with beatings and rape. When he arrived in the UK he was put into local authority care, but would regularly go missing. Karim would run away to meet men who would exploit him sexually and encourage him to steal to buy drugs. According to UNICEF, who supported the teenager, the police failed to investigate claims raised by his social worker due to the “difficulty in locating the culprits”. He is just one of hundreds of asylum seeking children to drop off the radar into danger.

The number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children going missing from care has more than doubled in the last year sparking concerns about systemic failures and the abilities of local authorities to handle the vast increases in the numbers of children coming to them.

  • A months-long investigation has found:
  • • More than 340 unaccompanied asylum seeking children went missing between January and September this year and 132 remain missing (according to responses from 130 different local authorities in England and Wales);
  • • The number of children going missing has doubled since last year while some local authorities have seen the number of children under their care increase three-fold;
  • • Internal records from Kent county council, the local authority with the most children in their care, admit they are so overworked that trafficked children have gone without adequate safeguarding;
  • • NGOs and lawyers are now concerned about governmental failures to implement recommendations from a 2012 inquiry, and worry new methods of police reporting de-prioritise missing asylum seeking children.

The investigation, published in part in the Observer, has found that some of the most vulnerable children in care —  those who arrived in the country alone after fleeing the horrors of war or abuse — are dropping off the radar, leaving them at risk of exploitation and radicalisation.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, who is due to bring a motion on the treatment of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in parliament today, told openDemocracy:

  • “Many of these children have escaped untold horrors and have made treacherous journeys to seek sanctuary. They are some of the most vulnerable refugees and are prime targets for gangs and traffickers. It is vital that they are properly looked after and monitored when they arrive in the UK.
  • The refugee crisis is not going away and the UK must do its fair share. That is why I am calling on the government to take 3000 orphaned children who have been displaced by war and are now in Europe – but we also need to tackle the lack of funding for those already here and more must be done centrally to support local authorities who are stepping up.”
  • The doubling in numbers of missing asylum seeking children comes three years after an all party parliamentary group declared that the numbers of children going missing from care was a “scandal”. MPs then set out a series of recommendations, including the need for a centralised reporting system. Three years later little has been done.

Ilona Pinter, policy advisor at The Children’s Society, told openDemocracy: “Children who come to the UK on their own or who have been separated from their families are incredibly vulnerable.

“Many have fled war and persecution and may run away fearing detention by the immigration authorities or being sent back to the country they fled. Others who have been trafficked into domestic work, forced criminality and other types of exploitation in the UK may run away because they fear violent revenge by traffickers against them or their families.”

Numbers on the rise

The increase in children going missing coincides with a dramatic rise in the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in local authority care. Councils including Cheshire East, Hammersmith and Thurrock have seen the number of asylum seeking children in their care triple.

Many local authorities are now working beyond capacity, with limited housing options for new arrivals. Peterborough and Herefordshire, which both saw the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children double in recent years, said they now have no semi-independent accommodation available for teenagers. Many other councils noted serious shortages in foster placements.

Several councils are now facing multi-million pound black holes in their finances.

Kent council, which let the most children go missing this year, is looking after an unprecedented 969 unaccompanied asylum seeking children, up from 333 children last year. According to one child services insider, that meant that last month there were around 200 unaccompanied asylum seeking children without a dedicated social worker.

The council has so many children in its care that 286 children have been moved into other jurisdictions this year, including Croydon, Bexley, Hounslow and Lewisham. An internal briefing from Kent County Council seen by openDemocracy, notes: “Children are routinely being placed outside Kent [as far away as Hertfordshire] straight from the port. This reduces KCC’s ability to assess the suitability of the placements or the potential risk to these children or their host community.”

The increased numbers means the council struggles to accommodate local children, and is having to send them to other areas around the country too.

Kent County Council notes the increased numbers and pressure on budgets means they are unable to properly safeguard children from potential radicalisation given “the limited level of oversight that Home Office funding permits”.

Hannah Stuart, counter-radicalisation expert at security think-tank the Henry Jackson Society, told openDemocracy:

“These asylum seeking children will undoubtedly have had traumatic emotional experiences, they will be isolated through language and might even face racism. The UK will seem alien to them and they will be seeking belonging- all that makes them vulnerable. If these children are on their own, then that’s particularly advantageous to those who may try to recruit them. The people supposed to protect them are social services, but with all the best will in the world that is not like being protected by a family member or friend. And if those social services are overstretched then the children are going to be all the more vulnerable.”

Where children go

With no centralised database it can be hard to ascertain patterns in those going missing, but the new data, collected through Freedom of Information requests to more than 130 Local Authorities, shows Vietnamese, Albanian and Afghan children are disappearing in high numbers.

At least 48 Vietnamese children have gone missing from authorities across England and Wales in the last nine months.

Vietnamese children have long been known to be at risk of trafficking for sexual exploitation or for use in cannabis factories, and so are in need of higher levels of protection.

In the past two months two large groups of potentially trafficked Vietnamese children have arrived in Kent but the authority was so overstretched that “this has exceeded the capacity of the limited number of appropriate specialist placements”, putting children at risk.

Debt and fears of removal

In other instances children disappear if they fear they will be deported when they become adults, with some choosing to work illegally in attempts to pay off the debts they incurred when being smuggled into the UK.

openDemocracy analysed government data for all three of the top missing nationalities and found in each case the rate at which children receive refugee status was significantly lower than average, leaving them open to deportation when they turn 18.

One Afghan man told openDemocracy he had run away from care in Dover when he was 16 after becoming scared that the Home Office would not believe his case. He travelled to London and worked 14-hour-days in a restaurant kitchen for £2 an hour. He slept on the floor in a room with four other people while trying to save enough money to pay off his debts.

Reporting failures

openDemocracy interviewed several lawyers and NGOs; many raised concerns about the way missing asylum seeking children are treated.

New police reporting guidelines, implemented in 2013, introduced a new category of “absent” for missing people, including children. The category was designed to be used for those that regularly go missing and are therefore not followed up as thoroughly. But experts worry that has led to reports of missing asylum seeking children being downgraded and deprioritised.

Ann Coffey MP, chair of the All Party Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, told openDemocracy she was, “extremely concerned that the new police categories will result in even less protection for these highly vulnerable children”. Both Missing People and the Children’s Society have written to the College of Policing outlining concerns over the “absent” categorisation.

The Children’s Society, Barnardo’s and other NGOs are calling for unaccompanied child asylum seekers to be assigned an independent legal guardian to protect their best interests and offer support and guidance.

The Home Office said it is providing additional funding to Kent council and that “nothing is more important than keeping vulnerable children safe. We have been clear that a national response is necessary to deal with the sharp rise in the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) faced by some councils.”

A Kent County Council spokesperson said: “Among our many challenges are young people who go missing. We are always mindful of the risks of trafficking and take appropriate steps to safeguard young people when this is suspected. In each instance we work closely with the police to ascertain the young person’s whereabouts and ensure that they are safe.”

£2m is now being invested in Kent to fight child sexual exploitation over the next three years.

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