How many children are missing or trafficked in the UK?

11 September 2020

We’ve seen multiple posts online make general claims about the number of missing children in the UK, and around the world. We also know that there is a general interest right now in missing children due to incorrect claims made by online groups

While any cases of missing or trafficked children are tragic, and any number of cases is too many, data from police and crime authorities shows that claims of hundreds of thousands of missing and trafficked children is a huge exaggeration. Most incidents of missing children in the UK are resolved quickly and do not lead to the child suffering harm. 

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How many children go missing

Reported missing persons cases are recorded by the UK Missing Persons Unit, part of the National Crime Agency. Its definition of missing is “anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and where the circumstances are out of character or the context suggests the person may be subject of crime or at risk of harm to themselves or another.”

Its data for 2018/2019 shows that 75,918 children were recorded missing by UK police forces.

However, there were 218,707 incidents of missing children in 2018/19, as some children go missing multiple times in the same year.

Generally, most missing children incidents are resolved quickly without harm to the child being recorded. In 98% of recorded incidents involving missing children in England and Wales, no harm was recorded, although police data does caveat this by saying that this just means cases have been closed without harm being reported by the missing child. The data behind this figure represents around half of police forces in England and Wales. The data isn’t available for the others, nor for police forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The majority of resolved incidents (52%) end within eight hours, with 80% being resolved within 24 hours. This doesn’t include the small number of cases that are unresolved. 

The UK Missing Persons Unit records that 1,514 children are long-term missing, which means they have been missing for longer than 28 days in England, Wales, and Scotland (data for Northern Ireland isn’t available) and remain unresolved. Cases can remain open for a significant amount of time. 

Around half of the long-term missing children cases still outstanding in 2018/19 referred to children who went missing prior to 2018/19.

It should also be noted that these figures are for cases that are reported. It is likely that there are more, unreported cases of missing children, particularly of those in vulnerable situations.

Child Trafficking

We can also look at missing children cases in terms of trafficking, which is a commonly cited reason for children disappearing in online misinformation. Not every trafficked child is a missing child, but they can be related

Laura Duran, a senior research and policy officer at Every Child Protected Against Trafficking says common misunderstandings of what trafficking looks like, which online misinformation can fuel, can affect actual trafficking victims being helped. 

“Many might assume that most child trafficking cases involve abduction or kidnapping or that the child may be physically bound or tied. This might be the scenario in a very small percentage of cases but the most common situation is that children are recruited and controlled through various physical and psychological means such as assault, preying on their fears of the police and immigration detention, and abuse of power or offering false promises. The legal definition of child trafficking takes into account the particular situation of children and their inability to consent to exploitation; for this reason, for a child to meet the criteria of being a victim of trafficking, the only factors that need to be present are that they are under the age of 18 and that they are recruited, transported, harboured or received for the purposes of exploitation.”

Child trafficking is a complex topic, and statistics on it are imperfect, but they can provide a context to baseless online claims.

The UK government uses the National Referral Mechanism to record potential victims of modern slavery, which includes trafficking. The most recent data from the project recorded 2,871 potential victims of modern slavery, of which 1,237 (43%) claimed to have been exploited as children. 

This data doesn’t estimate the number of children who are trafficked without detection so may underestimate the true figure in that sense. However, it also includes all “potential” victims, and so may overestimate the actual number of child trafficking victims.

If you think any person is missing, contact the police, either on 101, or 999 if they are a child or in danger of harm. If you’re unsure whether someone is missing or you do not want to talk to the police for any reason, or would like further support, Missing People provide a 24-hour helpline.

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