Hundreds of children at risk as police fail to track and prosecute traffickers

Study identifies 'tip of the iceberg' as vulnerable young are smuggled into Britain for fraud, cannabis farming, prostitution, and slavery

Criminals who traffic hundreds of children into and around the UK are not being adequately investigated or prosecuted, according to the country's leading child-protection unit.

Vulnerable children could be at risk thanks to a lack of knowledge and resources to catch their traffickers, a study from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) reveals. The report says that public sector cuts could exacerbate the situation, with two specialist police units in effect already closed.

Hundreds of children are smuggled into Britain every year and are used for slavery, prostitution or other crimes, according to the CEOP research seen by The Independent on Sunday. At least 287 children were identified as "potential victims" of trafficking between March 2009 and February 2010, a figure that experts say is likely to be the "tip of the iceberg".

More than a third of these children were brought to Britain for the sex trade, while some 18 per cent were made to cultivate cannabis. Children were also smuggled to be used for benefit fraud, forced labour, street crime or as domestic servants.

Some 53 trafficked children – almost one in five of the victims – subsequently went missing from care. Of these, 42 are still recorded as missing.

The report will increase pressure on the Government to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking, which would make it easier to prosecute traffickers and protect victims.

Appointing independent guardians for child-trafficking victims was recommended by the study, to help prevent so many going missing from care. This is also one of the conditions of an EU directive to which Britain has refused to sign up.

Vietnam was the most common of the 47 countries of origin for trafficked children. The study found 58 Vietnamese child victims, the majority of whom were boys aged 13 to 17, exploited as "gardeners" to cultivate cannabis plants in factories.

The CEOP study, called Strategic Threat Assessment: Child Trafficking in the UK, called on the police to do more to tackle the crime: "The number of trafficking investigations and successful prosecutions must increase in order to act as a deterrent to traffickers," it said. "There are only a handful of UK police forces which have units designated and trained in running investigations into trafficking."

Christine Beddoe, director of End Child Trafficking and Prostitution UK, said: "All indications show that this is just the tip of the iceberg. What is worrying is that so few police forces are identifying trafficked children and prosecuting the traffickers.

"The alarming number of Vietnamese children being trafficked into the UK, yet with no traffickers being arrested, is a disgrace and signals an urgent call to action for police across the UK. The Home Secretary should be responding to Parliament about why so little is being done to protect these vulnerable children."

The Government has said it will launch an "action plan" on trafficking in the spring.

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The Independent on Sunday is campaigning to persuade the Government to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking. The directive will strengthen our laws to protect victims, and make it easier to prosecute those who enslave them. Readers can call on David Cameron and Nick Clegg to do the right thing by signing the petition on the campaigning website 38 Degrees.

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