Criminal gangs are using immigration laws to traffic children into Britain through Heathrow Airport, a leaked report has revealed.
Gordon Brown has promised an investigation this week after it emerged that a children’s home near Heathrow airport has been used as a ‘clearing house’ by traffickers who have sold dozens of Chinese youngsters into slavery, prostitution or the drugs trade.
More than 80 children have escaped from the assessment centre near UK’s main international airport and only four of them have been found.
One of the girls discovered had become pregnant and it later emerged she and another had been forced to work in brothels in the Midlands.
A secret report by the UK Border Agency, leaked to The Guardian newspaper, said the centre had become a “clearing house” for international gangs.
It revealed some children simply walked out of the building to be picked up by waiting cars while others escaped out of windows or during fire drills.
The document said the missing children were victims of an international trafficking network with agents based in countries including China, Brazil, Japan, Malaysia and Kenya.
A spokesman for the UK Border Agency said:
“Children identified as vulnerable by UK Border Agency officers are placed in the care of local authority social services. Local authorities have a duty to ensure children are kept safe from harm.”
Despite this the council which runs the assessment centre insists it cannot force children to remain there.
Julian Wooster, Hillingdon Borough council’s deputy director of Children and Families, said:
“We cannot lock the doors because it’s a breach of their human rights. Unless they have committed a crime we do not place them in a secure setting.”
“We try to persuade them not to run away from the centre.”
Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said the leaked report highlighted a “scandalous situation in our immigration system”.
“To have such a large number of children going missing when they are supposed to be in care is unacceptable. We need an urgent explanation from the home secretary.”
The UK Border Agency says, 12 traffickers have been prosecuted for preying on the children in the last year.
Research by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) showed at least 325 youngsters had been identified as potential victims of trafficking in one year.
Before they arrive the children have been heavily coached to remain loyal to the traffickers, with reminders of or threats to their family back home, and repeated warnings that no-one in Britain will wish to help them, Ceop says. The children run away from the council homes to rejoin their traffickers as soon as they can.
The 40 or so children each year vanishing from the Hillingdon home are only a small fraction of the trafficked children entering Britain each year.
The true number of victims of the highly secretive trade is likely to be much higher, says Ceop. Children were found from 52 different countries, including China, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Romania, Vietnam – and from Britain.
Half were forced to work as prostitutes, while others were used as forced labour in restaurants, building sites, beauty salons and the drugs trade, tending cannabis farms, or selling counterfeit goods on the streets.
Evidence was uncovered of British children being trafficked around the country for sexual exploitation.
Chinese teenage girls are the ethnic profile most frequently trafficked into the UK, according to last month’s strategic report on child trafficking by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop).
Vietnamese children, destined to work in illegal cannabis factories in the UK, and Afghan boys are also frequently seen.
Some of the trafficked children are orphans, some come seeking a new life, while others have been sold by their parents to pay a debt. Most arrive by plane, because of the difficulty and expense of an overland journey from China to Britain.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families has produced a guidance leaflet – Safeguarding Children who may have been Trafficked – on how to safeguard any potentially trafficked child that they look after.
“We are clearly very concerned about any children that go missing from local authority care,” said a spokesman for the department.
“It is a duty for local authorities to make sure looked-after children are properly safeguarded wherever they are placed. They are also responsible for making sure the necessary measures are in place to take action whenever a child in their care goes missing.”