Organised criminal gangs have exploited a children’s home beside Heathrow airport for the systematic trafficking of Chinese children to work in prostitution and the drugs trade across Britain, a secret immigration document reveals.
Robert Booth on fears that Chinese children are being trafficked from a Heathrow care home Link to this audio
The intelligence report from the Border and Immigration Agency, obtained by the Guardian, shows how a 59-bed local authority block has been used as a clearing house for a trade in children that stretches across four continents.
At least 77 Chinese children have gone missing since March 2006 from the home, operated by the London borough of Hillingdon.
Only four have been found. Two girls returned after a year of exploitation in brothels in the Midlands. One was pregnant while the other had been surgically fitted with a contraceptive device in her arm. Others are coerced with physical threats to work as street-sellers of counterfeit goods. It is thought that many work in cannabis farms.
The report, marked “restricted”, reveals that victims of a trafficking network that has agents based as far apart as China, Brazil, Japan, Malaysia and Kenya arrive at the home just outside the airport perimeter, only to disappear almost immediately.
It states: “The absconding may be at the facilitation of organised crime groups and the children may then be exploited for financial gain.”
The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, is facing calls from the opposition to explain how the home came to be exploited by traffickers. “This report appears to highlight a scandalous situation in our immigration system,” said the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling. “To have such a large number of children going missing when they are supposed to be in care is unacceptable. We need an urgent explanation from the home secretary.”
The report, by the immigration agency’s national intelligence unit, was passed to the Guardian by a source concerned that too little action was being taken to tackle the problem. It says Chinese children arrive alone on flights to Heathrow before they are picked up by border officials and taken into local authority care. In two thirds of cases, they disappear quickly – most within a week and many within 24 hours. Many flee during fire drills and 10 have jumped out of windows. Others simply walk out of the front door into waiting cars.
Hillingdon council said the disappearances seemed “planned and coordinated” by criminal gangs. “They were being trafficked and there has been organised movement through the facility,” said Julian Worcester, the deputy director of children’s services.
He said the number of Chinese children coming through Heathrow had declined recently as a result of attempts to disrupt the networks, but the most recent figures show the problem remains. Between April and December 2008, 13 of the 41 Chinese children taken into care in Hillingdon disappeared.
“There is still a large proportion who go missing but the total numbers are going down,” said Worcester. “As a result of coordinated action, Heathrow is now seen as a more difficult airport to traffic people through. We think some of the activity has been displaced to other airports, in particular Stansted in Essex and Manchester.”
There is no suggestion that anyone involved in the administration of the home is responsible for aiding the traffickers. Other residents have fled situations in troubled countries, including Iraq and Somalia, and have not been trafficked.
Chinese children now account for a quarter of all suspected trafficking cases involving under 18s.
MPs and campaign groups are increasingly concerned at the number of suspected victims of trafficking who are going missing from local authority care.
Last week, the Home Office’s child exploitation and online protection centre said one in five suspected victims of child trafficking were missing from care.
“The Hillingdon experience is of such national significance that it cannot be swept under the carpet,” said Christine Beddoe, the chief executive of Ecpat UK, a charity that campaigns against child trafficking. “We have been calling on government for an inquiry into missing children for years. Every year we are ignored, hundreds more children are being exploited. Does it require another death like Victoria Climbié for the government to act?”
Minutes of a recent meeting about Chinese child trafficking attended by officers from the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the UK Human Trafficking Centre revealed a “lack of will to deal with child trafficking cases” among police child abuse investigation teams.
Ping Hayward, the director of the Chinese Community Centre in London, said: “This is a hidden and underground part of Chinese life.”