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Over 60 migrant children missing after disappearing from State care

The boys and girls – who sought protection after fleeing war-torn countries – vanished in Ireland since 2017.

Noteworthy logo with the design for KIDS IN CARE project - Four children facing forwards in silhouette with houses in the background

SIXTY-TWO ASYLUM seeking children have disappeared from State care after arriving in Ireland alone.

Of the dozens of separated migrant minors who have vanished from Tusla accommodation since 2017, 44 are no longer being searched for by the child welfare agency – because they reached their 18th birthday while missing.

A Noteworthy investigation has uncovered that, in many cases, no public appeals for the missing children were made by An Garda Síochána (AGS).

Analysis of the gardaí’s national missing persons database shows that there are currently 16 ongoing appeals for the whereabouts of migrant children who have disappeared over the last six years.

That’s despite Tusla records showing that over 60 boys and girls have gone missing and are yet to be located.

In the last 11 months alone, 20 refugee minors disappeared from State care and have not been found – the highest yearly number to date.

Yet from January to November, there have been just six garda appeals for information on the whereabouts of migrant children. The staggering figures mean that more than 75% of underage migrants haven’t been the subject of public appeals to help locate them.

Tusla confirmed it was aware that “not all missing young people are the subject of public appeals” with a spokesperson stating those were the responsibility of AGS. Meanwhile, gardaí said appeals are carried out “where deemed appropriate by the relevant Superintendent”.

The revelations have raised exploitation and trafficking fears with child safety experts who questioned why the cases of missing asylum seeking minors appear to be treated differently than Irish children.

Guillaume Landry, executive director of Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT), said: “If 20 local school children went missing in an emergency in Ireland tomorrow and the authorities just shrugged their shoulders, there would be outrage – where is the outrage for these missing children?”

Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

Targeted by predatory gangs

Noteworthy’s findings come just months after authorities were warned that gangs of “predatory men” were targeting young people in residential care.

A report published by University College Dublin’s (UCD) Sexual Exploitation Research Programme (SERP) in July revealed that some children going missing from Tusla care homes were victims of “organised” sexual exploitation.

The UCD research found the abuse “associated with cohorts of children whose life experiences make them more vulnerable”.

The scoping study, which focused primarily on Irish children, also noted the high number of migrant children who have gone missing from State care. It also found that authorities had become “desensitised” to the “predatory behaviour”.

MECPATHS, a non-profit group raising awareness of child trafficking and exploitation in Ireland, said the report “put into words” what frontline workers have been telling the organisation “for years”. Ann Mara, MECPATHS education manager said:

Sexual exploitation, forced labour, forced begging, criminal exploitation, forced marriage, the removal of organs and domestic servitude – it is all happening in Ireland.

“So the fact that these children are missing, and there is a kind of a shrug of the shoulders, is just mind boggling.”

The group, which trains frontline workers on how to spot signs of trafficking and exploitation, said young migrants are particularly vulnerable.

“On the missing children Ireland website the overwhelming majority were Chinese girls, and their last known sighting was Ireland,” JP O’Sullivan, network manager at MECPATHS, told Noteworthy.

“So in my personal opinion, the children are being brought in and they’re being exploited.”

According to the garda national missing persons database, a high number of Chinese girls were reported missing between 2006 and 2009.

It is unclear if they were in the care of the State at the time of their disappearance.

Tusla said that some of the young people who go missing from its care “communicate their intention to travel on to other member states to join family members”.

“Some indicate that it has never been their intention to remain in Ireland and we believe that these young people had plans in place to leave,” a spokesperson said. “Nonetheless for those who do not subsequently make us aware of their whereabouts An Garda Síochána are notified accordingly.”

O’Sullivan said: “It just doesn’t ring true.

“I would imagine the children are being spotted, their vulnerability has been spotted, and they’re being recruited for some form of criminality or exploitation.”

Trafficked from Russia to Ireland

The anti-child trafficking organisation said it is aware of a number of cases of foreign children being exploited in Ireland.

One involved a 14-year-old African girl who was trafficked to Russia and then Ireland, before being forced into domestic servitude.

“She was working as a nanny in somebody’s house and she was only spotted after someone saw her doing grocery shopping on a weekday,” said O’Sullivan.

Another case involved a boy found working at a petrol station in Limerick city centre.

They were unaccompanied, they were working, they had chemical burns to their face and their hands from whatever type of work they were doing.

“They were spotted by a member of the public who reported it to the guards who went to meet the child and he was brought into State care,” he said.

Mara of MECPATHS said a lack of data and statistics has “obscured the true reality” of child exploitation and trafficking in the country.

“What we would draw heavily on is the comparison of our statistics with the likes of the statistics in Northern Ireland, across the UK in general, and Europe,” she said.

“And we are far below the averages of victims of child trafficking with our nearest neighbours, especially with Northern Ireland where we share a soft border.

“If we’re looking at what’s happening in the UK, whereby there is evidence that shows traffickers are targeting unaccompanied minors who are being accommodated in hotels, we know the same is happening here.”

Another issue is the lack of enforcement of punishment and penalties surrounding child exploitation and trafficking, Mara said.

O'Sullivan wearing a suit and tie standing beside Mara on a street. JP O'Sullivan, Network and Communications manager at MECPATHS alongside Ann Mara, Education Manager. MECPATHS / Nick Bradhaw MECPATHS / Nick Bradhaw / Nick Bradhaw

Under the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 those convicted of an offence face life imprisonment and, at the discretion of the court, a fine for persons who traffic or attempt to traffic other persons for the purposes of labour or sexual exploitation.

According to a recent report by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, there were no successful trafficking convictions in 2022. The same year, five children were identified as suspected victims of trafficking, most for sexual exploitation.

“The punishments and penalties aren’t as rigorously imposed, so Ireland is a very welcoming country for exploitation and trafficking,” Mara said.

“We’ve known over the years that we are a destination, a source and a transit country. Yet the penalties are doing nothing to deter people from using the country as that corridor.”

Snatched from care

Former garda assistant commissioner John O’Driscoll spent many years investigating some of Ireland’s most serious crimes, including those involving trafficking and exploitation.

He headed up Operation Snow, which investigated fears that children were being trafficked by gangs into the country, placed into the State’s care and then abducted and forced into European brothels.

The cross border probe was sparked by the arrest of one of Europe’s most wanted child traffickers in Dublin.

Peter Kwame Sarfo, who also used the name Jackson Smith, was detained by the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) in 2007 after he attempted to claim asylum.

His fingerprints alerted the unit to the fact Kwame Sarfo was wanted in the Netherlands for serious child trafficking offences.

“This individual was suspected to be trafficking children from Africa, into Europe, and specifically into the Netherlands,” O’Driscoll said.

“The suspicion was that children were being brought into Europe, and they were being placed in accommodation in the likes of the Netherlands and no sooner had they been placed in that accommodation they were being removed by Kwame Sarfo and his people to be used for human trafficking and sexual exploitation purposes.”

John O'Driscoll at a conference wearing a garda uniform. Assistant Commissioner Special Crime Operations John O'Driscoll. Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

Kwame Safro’s arrest heightened garda fears that children in Ireland had also been targeted by his gang.

However, investigations found Kwame Sarfo – who was later extradited to the Netherlands and jailed – had not engaged in any child trafficking criminality during his time in the country.

The case did nonetheless focus garda attention on the risk of child trafficking. “It requires constant alertness, that’s why I established Operation Snow at the time,” O’Driscoll said.

“Like a lot of issues in policing, if you put a name on it, you’re not only putting a name on the operation, but it’s actually putting a name on the problem to an extent as well and it certainly raised issues.

“The discoveries we were making in GNIB at the time, we caused the HSE to be alerted to the problem, so everyone became more aware of the potential for that form of criminality.”

Of the serious cases investigated by O’Driscoll during his time leading GNIB, some involved foreign national children being used as household slaves.

“We ended up searching a premises in west Dublin and because our staff had now received training we recognised the indicators of where a child was being treated differently within a purported family,” he said.

We discovered that in fact, a child within the family was not a family member and was doing all the household chores including cooking and washing.”

Child welfare failures

Separated children seeking international protection are defined as children under 18 years of age who are outside their country of origin, and who may be in need of international protection and are separated from their parents or their caregiver.

Those arriving in Ireland immediately go into the care of the State.

Over the last 18 months, Tusla says it has experienced a “significant and unprecedented increase” in the number of children presenting, or being referred, to its Separated Children Seeking International Protection (SCISP) service.

As of mid-November, the child and family agency said it had 318 unaccompanied children in its care. Many of those children have fled war torn countries such as Afghanistan, Ukraine and Somalia.

Earlier this year, an independent watchdog found that the SCISP unit was failing to meet national child welfare standards.

Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) inspections – published in July – also found the governance of the service for separated children “was poor and required significant improvement”.

This followed two inspections carried out at the unit in February and March this year.

In regards to children who went missing from Tusla’s care, inspectors found that the staff did not adhere to the national protocol, ‘Children Missing From Care, A Joint Protocol between An Garda Síochána and the Health Service Executive Children and Family Services’.

It said: “Staff told inspectors that unaccompanied minors were reported as a missing child to An Garda Síochána.

“However, appropriate follow-up, such as the convening of strategy meetings by Tusla, did not occur in these cases, contrary to the protocol and Children First (Act 2015), when a child went missing.”

Hiqa said there was an absence of an agreed approach between SCISP and gardaí for “assessing and classifying the degree of risk and vulnerabilities” when an unaccompanied child goes missing.

It found that in one case of a missing child, flagged as at risk of exploitation, there was no evidence of follow-up discussion with gardaí “around the risk to the child of returning to exploitation”.

“When another child went missing from care without being seen by a social worker since securing a placement, no strategy discussion was held with An Garda Síochána,” the report added.

There was limited evidence of shared learning from incidents of children missing from care.

Inspectors also criticised a one-month delay in discussions between Tusla and gardaí about a missing child who was identified as having “trafficking risks”.

It was also found that the child had not been allocated a social worker.

Following the inspections, Hiqa issued an urgent compliance plan to the unit to address two risks relating to the safety and wellbeing of children.

Missing children removed from statistics

Following queries from Noteworthy on its protocols and practices involving missing unaccompanied children, a Tusla spokesperson said it has a joint protocol with An Garda Síochána to locate the minor.

“Once a child has been reported absent, the Gardaí have primary responsibility for investigating the child’s whereabouts.

“Tusla always remains concerned for the welfare of those minors who go missing from our care and who do not get back in touch.”

Figures provided by Tusla show that the 62 children who went missing from its care since 2017 until November this year, have not been found.

However, Tusla said many of those minors have now reached the age of 18 and as a result, are removed from its missing from care statistics. Because of this, the child and family agency records only 18 migrant children as currently missing.

When asked why a large proportion of the refugee children have not been the subject of media appeals, a Tusla spokesperson said: “Tusla is aware that not all missing young people are the subject of public appeals.

“This decision is made by An Garda Síochána (AGS) who are responsible for public appeals for missing persons. Tusla always remains concerned for the welfare of those minors who go missing from our care and will notify AGS when a child has been located.”

The spokesperson added that Tusla “continues to make efforts to contact the young person after they are reported missing.”

All children ‘should get same response’

When asked why some of the separated children have not been the subject of public appeals to help locate them, An Garda Síochána said appeals are carried out “where deemed appropriate by the relevant Superintendent”.

“A missing person investigation commences when the incident is reported to An Garda Síochána,” a garda spokesperson said.

“They are continuously reviewed at Superintendent level in the relevant Garda district at specific junctures within the investigation, to ensure that the risk assigned to the investigation is ratified, that all appropriate actions are being pursued and resources have been assigned.”

Gardaí also provided figures for the numbers of those aged 17 or under who have been reported missing and yet to be found.

In total, it reports 58 children who went missing from 2017 until December this year remain the subject of missing person investigations – four fewer than figures reported by Tusla.

Asked about the discrepancy, a garda spokesperson said Tusla’s figures could be more up to date.

Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, said more needs to be done to protect and support unaccompanied minors in the country’s care system.

“Children should be getting the same response no matter where they’re from,” she told Noteworthy.

“I do think the appointment of a guardian is really important and I know the Human Rights and Equality Commission has said in their work – and various different bodies have said – the game changer is someone who’s responsible for that day-to-day piece, to keep an eye on a young person that’s there to advise and guide them.”

ECPAT, which successfully challenged the UK government in court over its housing of unaccompanied minors in hotels, said Ireland needed to do better in its approach to young refugees entering the country.

Executive director Guillaume Landry said: “It’s important to recognise that when a child arrives in Ireland, this is a window of opportunity, of let’s be attentive to that child.

“And if you don’t, and you drop the case there, you’ll find the child again, six months later, knocking on the door of services in a much worse situation, the cost benefit of things will be much higher.

“They’ll disappear, but they’ll end up in criminality, prostitution, and things like that.

“Why? Because we failed at the first level. It’s not because those people are just bad people, and they were due to become criminals,” he said.

“It is the impact of the coping strategy and mechanism that when everything else fails, you still have to eat, and you’re left alone.

“So then your solutions are not the solutions that you and I want for our children, but that’s what’s going to happen.”

Kids in Care

Are children falling through the cracks of the care system?

Design for KIDS IN CARE project - Four children facing forwards in silhouette with houses in the background

By Patricia Devlin of Noteworthy

Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal. This investigation was proposed and funded by our readers alongside significant support from our investigative fund.

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