What happens when child asylum seekers go missing? Experts say majority are trafficked by gangs

Experts have warned that missing child asylum seekers may have been trafficked or coerced into criminal gangs.

The majority of asylum seeking children who have disappeared from Home Office hotels are likely to have been trafficked by gangs, experts have told NationalWorld.

Lawyer Philippa Southwell explained that many missing youngsters return to their traffickers due to “debt bondage”, with their families owing money back home. They are often used to run cannabis farms, as part of county lines drug rings, or for sex work, the former Anti-Slavery Commissioner added.

Around 200 youngsters seeking asylum are currently missing, the government has admitted. Addressing MPs on Tuesday (24 January), Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said that of the 4,600 child asylum seekers who had arrived in the UK since 2021, 440 had gone missing, and only half had returned. The majority are thought to be young boys from Albania.

It comes after a report in The Guardian claimed that scores of children had been kidnapped from a Home Office-run asylum hotel in Brighton. A whistleblower, who works for Home Office contractor Mitie, told the paper that “children are literally being picked up from outside the building, disappearing, and not being found”.

However, a Home Office spokesperson told NationalWorld it is “not true” to say unaccompanied asylum seeking minors are being “kidnapped”, pointing out that the children are not detained and are free to leave the accommodation. “They may choose to leave for a number of reasons, such as visiting family,” they said.

But legitimate concerns still remain - with experts raising the possibility of the children being trafficked, sold into sex work, or coerced into organised crime. So where exactly do child asylum seekers end up after they go missing, and what happens to them? Here’s what experts told NationalWorld.

Experts have warned that missing child asylum seekers may have been trafficked or coerced into criminal gangs. Credit: Mark Hall / NationalWorld

Where do child asylum seekers go after disappearing?

Philippa Southwell, managing director at Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Experts, told NationalWorld that trafficking was a “legitimate” concern. She said that many of the children she had worked with over the past several years had gone missing from Home Office hotels, local authority accommodation, or foster care placements - with the majority of those who resurface having been trafficked.

“It’s common that they’re already in debt bondage,” the human trafficking lawyer explained. “So, these children have been trafficked before - and they go back to their traffickers because there are threats to their families who owe money back home. Children end up returning to exploitative cycles because they fear what will happen to their loved ones.”

Ms Southwell added that there’s a “grooming process” involved, which helps facilitate child trafficking. For instance, children are given a mobile phone number to remember, or have certain contact information written on their clothes. So it’s almost too easy for vulnerable children to get in contact with their traffickers.

Other children are fed information from gangs about what will supposedly happen to them if they are found to be here ‘illegally’, which frightens them as they don’t know who to turn to - or what’s true. “So they’ll give the traffickers the location where they are residing, and they get picked back up,” Ms Southwell concluded.

There are other ways children end up disappearing too. Some traffickers, Ms Southwell explained, simply “know where the vulnerable people are” - and they’ll hang around these locations to see if an opportunity arises.

Children at Manston Airfield, a migrant holding facility in Ramsgate, England, on 2 November, 2022. Credit: Getty Images

Dame Sara Thornton, who previously served as the government’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, agreed that this is how organised crime gangs target children. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about what may have happened to the missing children, she said: “My real fear is the boys will be locked into cannabis farms, maybe ending up working in county lines distribution, while the girls may be forced into sex work.”

“We know that organised crime groups target unaccompanied children,” she continued. “They’re vulnerable, separated from their families, and may well have been trafficked before. They’re at real risk of this.”

But there are more complex situations too, where child asylum seekers are perceived to have left ‘voluntarily’ - even though this isn’t quite the case. Lots of child asylum seekers who arrive in the UK don’t speak English, Ms Southwell said, and plenty “aren’t even aware of what country they’re in.”

Therefore, if they’re out and about in the local community near their accommodation, “they may gravitate towards people who look like them, or who speak the same language. So it looks like they’re leaving voluntarily.”

“In practice,” Ms Southwell continued, “they then end up coerced into crime gangs. Or, they find someone of the same nationality, who says, seemingly helpfully, ‘come live with me instead’. But they end up doing the housework, looking after the children… and are sometimes passed on to another family, so they end up in another exploitative cycle. I’ve had clients picked up this way while just trying to buy a chocolate bar in the supermarket.”

NationalWorld also spoke to the Refugee Council, who echoed Ms Southwell’s and Dame Sara’s concerns. A spokesperson said: “We are concerned that these children are being criminally exploited or trafficked. They are very vulnerable already, often having fled from war, oppression, or discrimination, so end up finding themselves in situations where they are exposed to further trauma and abuse.”

What can be done?

Experts say that there needs to be better safeguarding in place as well as more support for children seeking asylum. “In my experience,” Ms Southwell said, “when my clients have a good trafficking advocate, when they feel they have a support network - it makes a huge difference. Advocates can help them go to the shops, which stops children getting picked up by traffickers while they’re innocently out and about.”

“They also need to be more aware of the support that’s available,” she continued. “Then, they can ask for help when they’re being fed misinformation, or if they’re involved with someone they feel they shouldn’t be.” She also suggested rehousing children in places that are not known to their exploiters.

Dame Sara argued that the use of hotels as emergency accommodation “needs to stop”, telling BBC Radio 4 that “it does appear the government has been ignoring the warning signs.” She said that “sufficient money needs to be given to local authorities” to deal with these children, as she has found that child asylum seekers in foster homes for instance are “far less easy to be found” than those in hotels run by the Home Office,

Experts say there needs to be better safeguarding of asylum seeking children who arrive in the UK. Credit: Getty Images

Refugee Council meanwhile told NationalWorld: “Children are going missing as a natural consequence of them being left alone in a complex, unsafe system. The government needs to investigate and put in proper safeguarding arrangements for all children in their care.”

Tamsin Baxter, Executive Director of External Affairs at the charity, added: “Children who come to the UK looking for safety should not be exposed to further trauma and abuse. We must remember that these are extremely vulnerable children who have already fled war, persecution and oppression. We have a moral and legal obligation to provide safe and adequate accommodation for children who come here seeking asylum. But we know from our work that children are often left alone in a complex and unsafe system, with no one to protect them. That is simply unacceptable.”

A spokesperson for the Home Office told NationalWorld: “Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect all children, regardless of where they go missing from. In the concerning occasion when a child goes missing, they work closely with other local agencies, including the police, to urgently establish their whereabouts and ensure they are safe.

Ending the use of hotels for unaccompanied asylum seeking-children is an absolute priority, and we have robust safeguarding procedures in place to ensure all children in our care are as safe and supported as possible as we seek urgent placements with a local authority.”

They added that “unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are supported by team leaders and support workers who are on site 24 hours a day”, while further care is provided in hotels by teams of social workers and nurses. Records are also reportedly kept which monitor children leaving and returning to the hotel - with the spokesperson saying “support workers will accompany children off site on activities and social excursions, or where specific vulnerabilities are identified.