Child traffickers are targeting the UK because of the ease with which they can move victims through British ports and local authority care homes, the chairman of a parliamentary inquiry intohuman trafficking has warned.
Keith Vaz, head of the home affairs select committee, said he and colleagues were “very concerned” about low levels of funding for law enforcement agencies to fight trafficking, and he called on the government to hold an urgent review of the number of foreign children missing from local authority care.
Cautious estimates suggest five suspected victims of child trafficking go missing from care around ports and airports in the UK every week.
“Because we are failing to track down the victims of trafficking we are encouraging more to be sent,” said Vaz, before the publication on Thursday of the committee’s year-long inquiry into trafficking. “There is a duty of care to make sure young people are tracked down and safe, and to tackle the problem with the origin countries which we are not doing successfully.”
Vaz also said there was “a growing connection” between local authority care facilities and trafficking, exemplified he said by the case exposed in the Guardian last week of 77 Chinese children missing from a single care home next to Heathrow airport since March 2006, only four of whom have been found. Two girls had been exploited as prostitutes in the Midlands, and others were suspected of having been forced to work in the drug trade and illegal labour.
The committee’s report is likely to increase pressure on ministers to reform the national approach to tackling child trafficking, which Gordon Brown has described as “a truly appalling crime that deserves our urgent attention”.
Downing Street said Brown had asked the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, and the children’s secretary, Ed Balls, for an urgent update on the issue at the Heathrow home. He has told them to report back within six weeks. “It’s not just the home near Heathrow airport, although that is the most obvious case,” said Vaz. “The worry is that it is much more widespread.
“The best way to tackle this is for the government to ask local authorities how many children have gone missing. I’ll be asking the secretary of state for communities and local government to list the authorities and the children.”
Police sources believe the exploitation by traffickers of local authority care homes as collection points for victims has spread to areas around other airports, including Manchester and Stansted, in Essex.
The committee is expected to include a call for more police funding to find trafficked children and prosecute their traffickers. During evidence, senior officers from the Metropolitan police said a specialist anti-child trafficking operation faced having its budget halved to £400,000; a strategic threat assessment by the Home Office’s child exploitation and online protection centre revealed that no trafficker in the exploitation of Chinese children has been successfully prosecuted; the same report called trafficking of Chinese children into the UK as “a significant and urgent issue”.
“More effort is needed to reduce the attractiveness of the UK as a destination country, and more work is needed to safeguard those children who do make it to the UK and are exploited,” said Vaz.
“We need a consistent approach across all local authority areas and police areas. There is a lack of co-ordination between all the agencies. It is something we heard in open evidence.”
Immigration minister Phil Woolas said child trafficking was “a very difficult issue, as children can be coerced or misled”.
“We’re having real success targeting the routes used by the criminals who prey on these vulnerable youngsters – a joint operation has seen 12 traffickers arrested in the past 12 months alone,” he said.
“We work with local authorities to ensure the best care for vulnerable children identified by UK Border Agency officers at ports. We have a welfare code of practice [for the agency] on keeping children safe from harm, and our latest bill will make the code law.”