Ministers are facing defeat in the House of Lords tomorrow on a vote to introduce independent guardians for trafficked children, a scheme that would prevent hundreds of youngsters from going missing every year from care homes.
A coalition of charities and peers from all parties is demanding giving greater protection to victims of trafficking who are snatched back into slavery when they are supposed to be in local authority care inside the UK. A recent parliamentary report found that six out of 10 of the 550 children trafficked into the UK every year later disappear from care homes.
While Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has announced measures for advocates to monitor child slavery victims, provide translation services and represent them in official meetings, the shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper wants the Government to assign legal guardians who would have statutory powers to take the police, immigration officials or local authorities to court and act as their parents.
An amendment to the Immigration Bill, debated in the Lords tomorrow, would introduce legal guardians, independent of local authorities, as recommended by the UN, Unicef, the EU anti-trafficking directive and the Council of Europe Convention on Trafficking. It has support from Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem peers, but the Government remains opposed. The Home Office says changes to guidance to local authorities are sufficient to overcome the problem of trafficked children disappearing.
Calls for independent guardians have been spearheaded by Ms Cooper and have the backing of charities including Barnado's, the Children's Society, Care and anti-trafficking charity Ecpat. Last year it was estimated that more than 2,000 victims of trafficking were discovered in the UK, of whom 550 were children. Two-thirds of rescued children go missing once they have been placed into local authority care, according to charities, with trafficking gangs snatching them back into slavery.
Ms Cooper said: "Trafficking of children is an evil crime that brings untold misery to the lives of young people. We cannot continue to just turn our backs on these incredibly vulnerable children. We need to listen to experts and introduce changes that will make a difference by stopping them falling into the hands of traffickers once they have been rescued. The case for introducing independent guardians is overwhelming. The Government must stop making excuses and take action to protect trafficked children."
Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children's Society, said: "We know from our work with children who arrive in the UK on their own that, too often, the authorities treat them with doubt and suspicion. Many are punished rather than protected when found with false papers, or forced into illegal work and denied the safe accommodation with full-time care that they need."