by Nic Rigby
BBC News, Norwich
Some children are 'groomed' to run away from council care
Nearly 140 children from foreign countries cared for by East of England councils over the past four years have subsequently gone missing.
A BBC investigation found that in 2008 some social services saw more than 40% of the children disappear.
It is feared that many of them will go on to be exploited by traffickers.
The figures, obtained by the BBC News website through Freedom of Information requests, were described as "worrying" by a childcare expert.
The figures show that between 2005 and 2008, 138 children (out of 857 who had come to the attention of social services) were listed as having gone missing from social services.
The survey included councils involved in childcare in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Suffolk.
Suffolk County Council, which covers an area including the giant container port of Felixstowe, saw some of the highest number of children go missing.
In 2008, 20 out of 48 children aged under 18 disappeared in Suffolk.
Missing foreign children in 2008 (total numbers in brackets)
Beds 0 (18)
Milton Keynes 4 (18)
Cambs 12 (57)
Essex 2 (39)
Herts 10 (36)
Norfolk 3 (7)
Northants 5 (87)
Suffolk 20 (48)
They included 12 Afghanis, two Chinese, four Indian, one Iranian and one Iraqi.
Christine Beddoe, director of child protection charity ECPAT UK, said she was concerned by the figures.
"Some traffickers get people into the country and they go into local authority care and are targeted to take them away," she said.
"Some of the children have been groomed to run away with full instructions on how to get away from their carers. Children seeking asylum would be entitled to benefits and care. We have been lobbying for a guardian system to support children."
A guardian would be an individual given legal responsibility for them.
Dr Ravi Kohli, Bedfordshire University's head of the department of applied social studies, said the figures were worrying but not surprising.
"Children are more likely to disappear if they have some connections with traffickers or organised gangs," said Dr Kohli, author of the book Social Work with Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children.
"The children are brought to the country, where the family pays for the procurement, and that price needs to be paid off, particularly with older children and girls through sexual exploitation.
"For boys it is more likely they will be trafficked for credit card fraud."
He said he knew of one case in which "children from China had mobile phone numbers (of traffickers) sewn into their clothing".
He said councils need more funds to deal with the problems.
"There have been attempts in at least two parts of the country to provide safe houses - not accessible to the criminal networks," he said, but this costs money.
"At the moment local authorities are not getting sufficient funding to get this set up."
He said knowledge of the concerns among social service staff on the issues is "patchy". He said "more awareness" of the issues was needed.
Pam Dajda, of Hertfordshire County Council - where 10 out of 36 children went missing in 2008, said: "When newly arrived many of the young people are very guarded.
"This is very common amongst asylum seekers and reflects their mistrust of authority.
"Consequently, the reasons why children and young people may go missing are not always clear.
"There are several reasons why this may happen. It may be because the 'child' is a young adult who has claimed to be a child in order to avoid immigration detention. It may be that they are planning to join a contact in the UK.
"Any concerns about trafficking are always referred to the police and taken into account when agreeing a response."
Milton Keynes Council said: "This year two young men, who said they were 16/17, have gone missing shortly after being provided with accommodation by us. We believe they went to personal contacts in other parts of the country."
A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokeswoman said: "We recognise the vulnerability of unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
"It is a duty for local authorities to make sure looked after children are properly safeguarded wherever they are placed."