Children as young as 9 years old have been moved thousands of miles across borders without their parents before disappearing from camps in the north of France, children’s charity the NSPCC has warned.

The children are thought to have been trafficked to the UK from France, and without proper protection, they are vulnerable to sexual abuse, exploitation, and violence. 

A new report from the NSPCC’s Child Trafficking Advice Centre (CTAC) revealed that the number of missing children has actually risen by 22% since July 2017.

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The report analysed case files from the 196 referrals to CTAC between August 2016 and November 2017. Of these children, 68 have been found to be either in the care of local authorities, or living with family members. 

But 128 children are still missing. 

The CTAC worked with the Calais-based Refugee Youth Service (RYS), which safeguards children who had been living in the so-called “Jungle” camp in Calais until it was demolished in October 2016. 

When RYS suspects a child has moved from France to the UK, it refers the child’s case to CTAC, which then shares child protection information with UK agencies and tries to establish the child’s whereabouts. 

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“Some of these children may be in the UK but unknown to children’s services and, with no wider network to safeguard and protect them, are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking,” according to the report. 

These children also generally spent several months in Calais before being moved to the UK, during which time they had no access to formal education, regular food, or safe accommodation. 

The children originally came to the attention of charities working in the camp as they were travelling with parents or carers, although some were accompanied by siblings, leaving them vulnerable to being abused and exploited by adults, according to the report.  

According to the case files, some of the children living in the Calais camp were sexually abused; were subjected to violence from adult smugglers or traffickers, as well as from police; slept alongside unrelated adults, or in rat-infested or waterlogged tents; and kept weapons to protect themselves. 

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The 196 children subsequently went missing from the camp but when reported were not deemed to be “missing people” by the French authorities, according to CTAC. They therefore continued to be exposed to the risk of trafficking and other forms of abuse while seeking to reach the UK, it added. 

The children were from 12 different nationalities. By far the majority were from Afghanistan (110 children), 34 were from Eritrea, and 16 were Ethiopian. Others were from Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Chad, Iran, Vietnam, and Pakistan.

Among the heartbreaking reasons that they gave to RYS, social workers, and the Home Office for leaving their homes, they said fear of the Taliban, war, being orphaned, illegal imprisonment, and threats to family or themselves. 

Of all 196 children, only four were girls. All of these girls are still missing. 

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In response, the NSPCC is calling on the government to strengthen the arrangements in place to stop cross-border child trafficking — particularly following Brexit next year. 

The CTAC wants an integrated child protection system within Europe “which would facilitate agencies working together across borders to protect children forced to migrate from all forms of harm and which would include the UK after it leaves the EU.” 

“Existing European mechanisms such as Europol, Eurojust, and the European Arrest Warrant are vital for finding missing children and bringing child traffickers to justice," said Almudena Lara, NSPCC’s head of policy. "Countries have a legal duty to protect child victims, so the protections currently offered by cross-border arrangements must be guaranteed after Brexit.”

“Additional arrangements between France and the UK to share information about their child protection concerns and specific health needs would allow us to offer better help to children once they’re located,” Lara added. 

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When it comes to the European Dublin III regulation — the so-called “Dubs scheme” that should allow asylum-seeking children to be resettled in the UK — the NSPCC found that many children had given up on the process. They said they felt it had taken too long to receive any response, or they simply didn’t trust the system. 

“As a result, some children felt that trusting smugglers was the only way to guarantee their passage to the UK,” said the report. 

The government has faced criticism for its handing of the “Dubs scheme.” Having originally pledged to transfer 480 unaccompanied children, just 200 had been housed in the UK by November 2017. 

This is in comparison to the estimated 10,000 refugee children who go missing in Europe every year, according to the European Parliament.

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