Almost one-in-five lone child refugees from Albania have gone missing from care, Kent county council has confirmed.
The local authority said 39 of the 197 Albanian children it has taken into care between January 1 and October 31 this year have gone missing.
The revelation came to light following a freedom of information request by the BBC.
Ecpat UK, an organisation that works to protect children from exploitation, said the number of missing child refugees is very concerning.
Laura Durán, Ecpat’s head of policy, advocacy and research fears the children are at risk of “exploitation or have effectively been trafficked”.
“They could be facing labour exploitation in different industries such as construction or car washes; they could be criminally exploited in drug distribution or in cannabis farms, or they could be sexually exploited,” said Durán.
Kent county council said it works closely with the Home Office and police when a child goes missing from care to find them.
In a statement the council said there has been a “significant increase” in the number of unaccompanied children from Albania being referred to its services since May 2022.
“With the significant increase and recognised vulnerability of Albanian unaccompanied children, safeguarding protocols take place at point of referral. Even then it can be very challenging to prevent all children from going missing.
“The protocols involve strategy discussions and child protection investigations with police, Home Office, health and other public authorities to ensure, as best as possible, the child is safeguarded from the risk of exploitation and going missing.”
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary called the revelation “extremely serious” and added: “Trafficking gangs are bringing children and vulnerable teenagers into the country for exploitation.
“The Home Office clearly doesn’t have a grip on this at all; for so many Albanian children to just disappear like this should have raised major alarm bells in government. They must not keep letting the gangs get away with this.”
Albanians should be barred from claiming asylum, says Jenrick
Elsewhere, the Telegraph is reporting that immigration minister Robert Jenrick said Albanians should be barred from claiming asylum n the UK.
Jenrick said it is “very hard” to see how Albanians could successfully claim asylum when they come from a “demonstrably safe” country.
“The principle that we come from is that a safe country like Albania should be excluded from the right to claim asylum,” said the immigration minister.
Jenrick has confirmed the UK is negotiating with Albania to set up a fast track deportation system and told viewers of GB News: “We have a returns agreement, which was signed a year ago, and 1,000 Albanians have gone back already. We are also pursuing diplomatic channels. I think you should watch this space.”
Jenrick called the UK’s current 500,000 net migration “wrong”, “unsustainable” and “far too high” and signalled a “very serious reform” of the UK’s immigration system.
“We will need more legislation to sharpen up our laws because the system isn’t just broken, it’s in danger of becoming obsolete,” said Jenrick.
“Our whole immigration system was created after the Second World War in an entirely different era. Today is a totally different world where an Albanian can get a flight from Tirana to Brussels, get a bus to Calais and then pay a few thousand pounds to get across the Channel.”
A record 44,000 migrants have crossed the Channel this year, 12,000 of whom are from Albania.