At least 39 Albanian child migrants have left the care of the UK authorities and gone missing in the period between January 1 and October 31 this year, according to the Kent County Council in England.
The information was revealed by Kent County Council last week following a freedom of information request by the BBC. The Council said that of the 197 unaccompanied Albanian children they had been asked to care for in the last year, 39 -- or almost one fifth -- have now gone missing.
This year, Albanians have been one of the largest group of nationals making their way across the Channel to the UK. According to The Guardian newspaper, more than 12,000 Albanians have made the crossing. Most migrants arrive in the region of Kent which encompasses the coast around the port of Dover.
Over the last couple of years, the growing number of unaccompanied child migrants taken into the care of Kent County Council have stretched authorities to the point where they have refused to take further children, saying they are "overwhelmed."
The Guardian reported that between August and December 2020 and June and November 2021, Kent Council had refused to take in any more migrant children to their care, asking other UK regional authorities to help share the burden.
Child migrants go missing
The French authorities recently reported that it is not unusual for unaccompanied minors to go missing from their care. Some leave to join friends and family in other parts of France, or Europe, or in the hope of crossing the Channel towards the UK.
A spokesperson from Kent County Council told the Guardian that it could be "very challenging to prevent all children from going missing." The spokesperson confirmed that there had been a "significant increase" of Albanians arriving and that the Council recognized the "vulnerability of Albanian unaccompanied children." They said that "safeguarding protocols take place at point of referral."
These protocols "involve strategy discussions and child protection investigations with police, Home Office [Interior Ministry] health and other public authorities to ensure, as best as possible, the child is safeguarded from the risk of exploitation and going missing," according to the spokesperson.
Since May 2022, the Council had had to "convene multiple forums with local and national public authorities to look beyond these established protocols as children continued to arrive and go missing," the offical admitted.
These extra meetings had reportedly helped "improve professional understanding and decision-making for these children, which has contributed toward a reduction in the number of children going missing."
Once the authorities locate a missing child, they make sure to "establish what has happened ... and how they can be safeguarded from going missing again," the official added.
A spokesperson from ECPAT, the organization which works to protect "every child against trafficking", told the BBC that they were very worried about the fate of some of the children who had gone missing, calling the new data "concerning."
In a BBC radio program, the spokesperon for ECPAT said that the missing children could easily fall victim to abuse and exploitation. Some were at risk of ending up becoming victims of human trafficking, or being forced to work in cannabis farms or being criminally exploited in other ways.
In July, ECPAT released data which showed that in a ten-month period from June 2021 to March 2022, at least 45 unaccompanied children arriving in the UK had gone missing, "after they were unlawfully placed outside the child protection system in hotel accommodation by the Home Office."
Although these children are from a variety of different nationalities, ECPAT said it received reports of Albanian boys as young as 11-12 going missing, including a report of a child 'jumping out of windows'.
ECPAT found that the Home Office has housed 1,606 children in hotels between July 2021 and June 2022, "even though this is unlawful." The report said that "unaccompanied children are at significant risk for serious harm, including abuse, exploitation, and missing episodes are often an indication that children and young people have been re-trafficked."
'Child victims of trafficking are at significantly high risk of going missing'
"(c)hild victims of trafficking are at significantly high risk of going missing. The most recent findings from a joint ECPAT UK and Missing People report found that 13% of unaccompanied children went missing from care in 2020 (692 of 5,263)," the organization said.
ECPAT said that the "care and support" that these children received in the "home" where they were placed was "the number one priority for preventing missing episodes." ECPAT also criticized the new Nationality and Borders Act which the ruling Conservative government passed into law this year.
Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK, said in a press release in July that the new law did not provide "any special protections for children in the modern slavery and trafficking part of the legislation, and introduces measures which will reduce identification, deny protection, and penalize child victims for their own exploitation."
Durr continued, "in short, it is hard not to conclude that the current hostile agenda is taking priority over children's rights and welfare, creating dangerous and unlawful precedents."
Agreement with Albania
Over the weekend, the right-wing newspaper the Daily Mail reported that the UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was hoping to sign an agreement with Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, allowing the UK to more quickly deport Albanians crossing the Channel. The two countries already have one cooperation agreement in place. This would unlikely affect unaccompanied minors however, to whom the UK authorities have a duty of care.
According to the Daily Mail, if the deal goes ahead, some Albanians could be sent back to await the result of their asylum process in their own country, rather than being accommodated in the UK while they wait.
Mr Sunak and his Conservative party also hope to "close loopholes" which reportedly have been used more frequently by Albanian migrants. According to the newspaper "a total of 3,432 Albanians claimed to be slavery victims in the first nine months of this year – making them the largest nationality using the Modern Slavery Act."
Any migrant claiming to be a victim of modern slavery is to be allowed to stay in the UK for the duration of the time the Home Office takes to process their claim. This is, on average, "561 days, during which time they can stay with free accommodation and a weekly allowance," writes the Daily Mail.
The Home Secretary Suella Braverman has also indicated that she believes some of the modern slavery claims coming from Albanians are "spurious." Britain’s National Crime Agency NCA has stated that Albanians are often brought across by organized crime groups which are fairly well-established in the UK, and bring their co-nationals across to work in the drugs trade, or on cannabis farms.
Some Albanian migrants are also coopted into prostitutuion by crime gangs in the UK. The NCA told the Mail that it believed some Albanians had been "coached" on how to claim to be a victim of modern slavery if arrested.
"The Albanian criminal community will manipulate the National Referral Mechanism in a fairly extensive fashion," said NCA intelligence manager Steve Brocklesby to the Mail. "We know how –anecdotally, speaking to police forces around the country -- that if an Albanian illegal migrant is arrested in a cannabis ‘grow’ [farm] then often the first thing they’ll do is claim to be a victim of trafficking. That is very different to most other users of the National Referral Mechanism."