By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Dec 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A growing number of trafficked children in Britain are going missing from care, with some feared to be returning to their traffickers after being treated like criminals or illegal immigrants by authorities, two charities said on Wednesday.
A quarter of the 1,015 identified or suspected child trafficking victims in the care of local authorities went missing at least once last year - 246 children compared to 167 in 2015 - according to research by ECPAT UK and Missing People.
The child victims reported as missing from care disappeared seven times on average. Their reasons for running away included poor accommodation, fear of authorities and the ongoing control of human traffickers, the charities said in a report.
The findings raise doubts about Britain's ability to care for vulnerable children at a time when a record number of suspected child slaves are being referred to the government - 2,118 last year and up two-thirds on 2016 - campaigners said.
"Trafficked and unaccompanied children continue to be failed by the system which should be safeguarding and protecting them," said Jane Hunter, senior research manager at Missing People.
"(They) are particularly vulnerable, and may go back into a highly exploitative situation to those they were trafficked by."
Britain's Children and Families Minister Nadhim Zahawi said that any missing child was cause for "serious concern".
"We require all care placements to have clear procedures in place to prevent children from going missing," he said in a statement.
About a fifth of the 975 trafficked or unaccompanied children reported as missing from care in Britain last year have not yet been found, according to the charities' data.
"I can see why young people run away to their trafficker," one child who went missing from care was quoted anonymously as saying in the report. "It is 'better the devil you know'."
Despite being hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain said in July it would review its landmark 2015 law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive firms to stop forced labour, or help victims.
Many child victims of trafficking are convicted of crimes they are forced to commit in captivity - such as drug offences on cannabis farms where many Vietnamese teenagers are found - and are later refused asylum, lawyers and campaigners have said.
Between 2015 and 2017, Britain denied asylum to 183 people trafficked as children from nations such as Vietnam - double the total for the previous three years - government data obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation revealed in July.
"Too often these children are treated as criminals or immigration offenders, rather than vulnerable children requiring support," said Catherine Baker, ECPAT's senior research officer.
Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation - a figure 10 times higher than a government estimate from 2013.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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