Why did all these Chinese 'teens' go missing in Ireland?

Numbers of missing migrant children fell significantly after the system was reformed, leading experts to believe it had been used by smugglers to sneak people into the country.

An Garda Síochána An Garda Síochána

BETWEEN 2007 AND 2009, at least 41 Chinese nationals registered as being under the age of 18 went missing in Ireland and they are still listed on the garda website.

The disappearance of youths who came from China was one of the many reasons the government decided to move away from the hostel system for unaccompanied children who were seeking asylum in Ireland. Before 2010, any child over the age of 12 but under 18 was placed in one of ten privately run hostels in Dublin.

There were frequent criticisms of this system at the time, as the country did not have enough social workers to support the large numbers of unaccompanied children coming into the country and there was nowhere else to place them.


Thomas Dunning, who is the acting principal social worker with the team for separated children seeking asylum at Tusla – the Child and Family Agency, said the large influx of these minors from the year 2000 took the government by surprise.

In 1996, the first separated child arrived in Ireland. In 1997 there was one more and in 1999 there was less than ten. In 2000, we had 520 referrals. If 520 extra Irish children came into care this year, we would have a crisis.

“At the time, nobody knew how to manage this because the children in care model the country was operating in didn’t account for people who didn’t have parents in the country,” he explained.

“The minors hostels were opened up as an emergency gap measure – to nobody’s satisfaction.”

In the three year period before the current foster family system for foreign national children was introduced, a total of 41 young Chinese people under the age of 18 were listed as missing on the garda website and are still there today. Ten of them were thought to be 16-years-old when they went missing and one was listed as 15.

Speaking about the missing Chinese youths, Dunning told that his office noticed a large number of these children being referred through the out of hours service.

“They would arrive on, let’s say Thursday night, they would be brought to one of the hostels for minors and they would be gone before nine in the morning, before a social worker could even see them,” he explained.

Dunning said that the system for separated children and these hostels were being used as a “new route” for people to exploit to get into the country. He said it was known outside of Ireland that a person presenting at the passport office in the airport as under 18, without any papers, would be brought straight to a hostel.

It is believed that many of the Chinese nationals who used the service at the time were not minors but the age assessment system in place now did not exist then.

Within three months of the new system being put in place,  all of the Chinese entries stopped, for this particular service.

Figures from Tusla for missing children show a drop off after 2009, when the government started to close the hostels and place children with foster carers:

“My gut instinct and my experienced professional opinion is that most of the young people who went missing did so of their own volition and of their own mandates and maybe mandates from their families, rather than being trafficked or re-trafficked,” Dunning commented.

Humanitarian disaster

Though the figures clearly show the change in the system put a stop to the exploitation of the hostels by smugglers, he said this was not the main consideration in closing them.

Every clinical issue was a trigger to close them down. This was substandard care and that was why they needed to be closed.

It was a disaster – it was a humanitarian disaster – and Ireland did its best at the time to figure out what to do with it and it took them a few years to sort it out. None of us were satisfied with it.”

He said it was “remarkable” how quickly the system was reformed “considering how long it can take for social change to happen”, with all of the hostels closed by the end of 2010.

His team now deals with significantly lower numbers of children, with 120 referrals last year.

“Now we’re ahead of the game and we’re leading the way in Europe in terms of services for separated children,” he said.

Read: Ireland treats children seeking asylum as ‘second class citizens’>

Read: Report questions if Direct Provision conditions ‘amount to child abuse’>

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