Suspected victims of child trafficking from Asia, Africa and the Middle East are being smuggled through Britain's leading ports and airports at an accelerating rate, new figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal.
A total of 957 children, including more than 400 from Afghanistan and 200 from Africa, were picked up by local authorities in the eight months between April 2008 and the end of the year.
At least 53 came from Iraq in a development that appears to back up warnings this week from aid agencies and police in the war-torn country of a growing trade in child trafficking to countries including Britain and Ireland.
The figures, obtained by the Guardian, represent a 90% increase compared to the annual rate of arrivals over the previous three years.
The children are often hidden in the backs of lorries which travel through ports in Kent and Suffolk and others are smuggled through Heathrow and Gatwick on false papers, according to care officials and the victims' testimonies. It is thought many are trafficked for exploitation in prostitution and domestic servitude.
Anti-trafficking campaigners are particularly concerned that one in eight of those taken into care go missing. Case workers who help victims said the children are commonly told by their traffickers, often under threat, to flee care.
Figures released by Kent county council, which handled the biggest single influx of suspected victims of trafficking, show that 86 of the 474 children it took into care over the eight month period last year, went missing. Officials in Hillingdon, west London, which handles children trafficked through Heathrow, said 27 of the 285 children it took responsibility for left care without leaving a forwarding address and have been reported missing.
"These figures bear out what we see happening across the UK where reports of child trafficking are increasing significantly," said Chris Beddoe, chief executive of Ecpat UK, which campaigns against child prostitution, child pornography and child trafficking. "Given so many of these child victims go missing so quickly after they are taken into local authority care, it seems clear that we are witnessing a pattern of criminal activity among traffickers. Yet no one goes out looking for these children when they disappear. If the government is really committed to keeping them safe they would implement a system of guardianship so someone would be responsible for each and every child."
In Kent, where the largest proportion of trafficked children arrive, facilities to look after suspected victims of child trafficking are thin on the ground. There is only one residential reception centre which can accommodate two dozen children. Yet in the last recorded eight months, authorities there had to try and help 255 Afghan children, 55 from Iran, 50 from Iraq and 49 from Eritrea as well as others from Vietnam, China, Kosovo, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Turkey.
"We are of course most concerned about this situation," said Leyland Ridings, Kent's cabinet member for children, families and education standards. "We do all we can to prevent it."
Not all local authorities are losing the battle against traffickers. West Sussex, which handles cases from Gatwick, has managed a reduction in the number of children who go missing from care. It took 55 suspected victims of trafficking into care between April and January last year and only five children went missing. In the previous three years it lost track of 42 children.
The Home Office has admitted there are barriers to victims of human trafficking seeking help and last week launched a national mechanism so that any suspected victim will be referred to the UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield.
It is part of a series of measures which followed the introduction of the Council of Europe convention on human trafficking which came into force in Britain on 1 April. "Human trafficking is one of the most horrendous crimes threatening our society," said a Home Office spokesman. "Those who are responsible for this modern form of slavery are profiting from human misery and suffering."
The White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) is the UK branch of the global campaign to ensure men take more responsibility for reducing the level of violence against women. This is the blog of the London branch of WRC UK. All blog entries are written by our Policy & Advocacy Officer, Adriana Szalontai, unless otherwise stated. Please visit www.whiteribboncampaign.co.uk for more information.