The UK Borders Bill will have a “massively detrimental” impact on exploited children, who will be at greater risk of being left unprotected and penalised, charities have warned.

Westminster has been urged not to let an “adult-focused agenda take priority over children’s rights and welfare”, with the new immigration law set to be debated in the Commons on Wednesday.

Nine child protection and anti-trafficking groups say a lack of long-term solutions for trafficked children is a “major factor” in them going missing and being further exploited.

It comes as figures from Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) and the charity Missing People show that trafficked children are disappearing from local authority care eight times a year, on average.

The data, shared with the PA news agency, shows that the number of children in care suspected of being trafficking or modern slavery victims rose by 22 percent between 2018 - 2020 (from 960 to 1,231).

The National Wales: A Ukrainian child refugee, left, and a baby arriving in the UK via the Channel, right. (Pictures: PA Wire)A Ukrainian child refugee, left, and a baby arriving in the UK via the Channel, right. (Pictures: PA Wire)

The number of these exploited children who went missing from care rose by a quarter over the same period, Freedom of Information responses from UK councils show.

In 2020, around three in 10 trafficked children in care (378) went missing, compared to one in 10 looked-after children and one in 200 children in the UK generally.

Experts said this “very concerning” rise amongst exploited children contrasted with an overall decrease in the number of children going missing during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The research also showed a ten percent rise in the number of unaccompanied children in UK local authority care – from 4,749 in 2018 to 5,263 in 2020.

Unaccompanied children are those who arrive in the UK without their parents or any other relative. They may have been separated from family on their journey, or may be orphaned.

"Many of these unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) have to live with the trauma of having seen things that no child ever should," according to the UN's Refugee Agency.

"Some have even seen their parents killed."

Thirteen percent of unaccompanied children in care went missing in 2020.

In an open letter to UK Government ministers, organisations including the Children’s Society said they are “increasingly alarmed” by the assertion – made when the Nationality and Borders Bill was previously being debated in Parliament – that there should be no special protections for children in its modern slavery and trafficking proposals.

The National Wales: Priti Patel has faced criticism over her plan to offshore asylum seekers in Rwanda. (Picture: PA Wire)Priti Patel has faced criticism over her plan to offshore asylum seekers in Rwanda. (Picture: PA Wire)

Addressing Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, they wrote: “The war in Ukraine has led to the displacement of 4.3 million children: many of them are at risk of exploitation and there is widespread unease about trafficking at borders.

“There is also concern that the UK Homes for Ukraine scheme contains few effective safeguards.

“What’s more, Ukraine is home to large numbers of children in institutional care who will need protection and are already at significant risk of exploitation.

“Now is not the time for the UK to reduce identification and protection for child victims of exploitation.

“Now is not the time to allow an adult-focused agenda to take priority over children’s rights and welfare, creating a dangerous and unlawful precedent.”

In February, both the Welsh and Scottish parliaments voted to withhold consent for the Borders Bill - a formal request for Westminster not to impose certain sections of the new law on Wales and Scotland.

In a letter to UK immigration minister Kevin Foster, the Welsh Government warned that the Bill is "incompatible with the UN Refugee Convention" and would create "systemic destitution and homelessness" amongst refugees.

"I am making an urgent plea for the UK Government to act reasonably to avert an impending tragedy if the Bill is implemented as currently drafted," wrote Jane Hutt, Welsh Social Justice Minister.

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ECPAT and Missing People said the UK is in the grip of a “child protection crisis” for vulnerable children.

In their When Harm Remains report, the groups say many children feel disbelieved when sharing that they have been exploited, and when telling professionals their age.

In some areas of the UK where high proportions of trafficked or unaccompanied children go missing, professionals may view this as “inevitable”, particularly for children of certain nationalities, which hinders safeguarding.

The National Wales: Children arrive in the UK from a Channel crossing. (Picture: PA Wire)Children arrive in the UK from a Channel crossing. (Picture: PA Wire)

There are also concerns that law enforcement may take discriminatory approaches towards migrant children as a result.

“It is hard to understand why the Government is currently creating laws that will make this problem worse and will put child victims of trafficking at risk of further exploitation," Patricia Durr, chief executive of ECPAT UK, said.

“There is still time for the Government to shield children from the dangerous proposals on modern slavery in the Nationality and Borders Bill, and to make clear that all decisions must be taken in children’s best interests.”

Jane Hunter, senior research and impact manager at Missing People, said: “Many of these children will have experienced harm, fear and exploitation both before going missing and while missing.

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“What’s more, this data shows no improvement over recent years, with both a higher number and proportion of trafficked children going missing in 2020 than in previous years, and a broadly similar proportion of unaccompanied children going missing.

“It is very clear that more needs to be done to safeguard these children.”

The National Wales: Ukrainian refugees travelled by bus to Poland. (Picture: PA Wire)Ukrainian refugees travelled by bus to Poland. (Picture: PA Wire)

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery and ensuring that vulnerable individuals, especially children, get access to the right support.

“This is what the Nationality and Borders Bill will deliver, through enhanced legal aid provision and by giving temporary leave to specific victims, those who’ve suffered this horrendous crime will be able to begin the process of recovery and rebuilding their lives.”

Welsh Secretary Simon Hart was strongly criticised last week, after he called the UK Government's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda "a really humane step forward”.

Last year a UK Ambassador to the East African country, which suffered a genocide in the mid-nineties, expressed “regret” that the Rwandan government was not conducting “transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture”.

Britain itself has granted asylum to dozens of Rwandans over the past decade.

Additional reporting: Rebecca Wilks

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