Figures show a jump in the number of cases of child trafficking into Britain, much of it through Kent. Photograph: Paul Shawcross/Alamy
More than two dozen children suspected of being trafficked into the UK this year through Kent's channel ports have gone missing from care.
Kent county council said it had no way of knowing what happened to almost a quarter of the unaccompanied foreign children who were being looked after in children's homes or by foster parents.
The disappearance of the 25 children, aged 12 to 17, sparked fresh calls for reform of care for children trafficked into exploitation including prostitution, benefit fraud and cannabis farming.
Anti-trafficking campaigners believe the children from Afghanistan, Vietnam, Algeria, Morocco, India, Albania and Palestine are likely to have fallen back into the hands of the international criminal networks who trafficked them into Britain.
The news came on Anti-Slavery Day as the Home Office's UK Human Trafficking Centre and the Child Exploitation and Online ProtectionCentre released data showing a leap in recorded child trafficking into the UK.
Some 202 suspected child trafficking victims were referred to the Home Office centre and through the NSPCC up to 15 September this year. It suggests an annual rate of 285 compared with 195 in the year to April 2011.
The largest single group of victims in the latest snapshot came from Vietnam (48), followed by Nigeria (29) and Romania (23). Labour exploitation was the main reason for trafficking into the UK, with 54 children exploited in farms, restaurants and nail bars as well as on building sites, the report said.
More than a quarter of all victims were trafficked for sexual exploitation, all female, while 23 were exploited as domestic servants, which Ceop identified as the most hidden form of abuse with children kept in homes, away from schools and doctors where they might be discovered.
Commenting on the loss of suspected trafficking victims, Kent county council said there was no way of preventing them from leaving council care.
"Unless we keep [children] under lock and key we can't guarantee they won't go missing and go into a horrendous life of trafficking ," said Jenny Whittle, Kent county council's cabinet member for specialist childrens services. "We will do everything possible to encourage these children to speak with us and build a relationship of trust."
The council said that some of the children may have left care becaiuse they were approaching adulthood and then they would have to apply for leave to remain in the UK. 16 of the 25 were aged 17.
Ecpat UK, an anti-trafficking campaign group, yesterday renewed its demand that the government introduce a system of guardians for child victims of trafficking to prevent them going missing from care in the face of Downing Street's rejection of the idea.
In July, David Cameron responded to a petition with more than 730,000 signatures calling for the systemby saying "the current arrangements for safeguarding trafficked children are sufficiently comprehensive and afford those vulnerable children the protection they deserve." In a letter to campaigners, he said introducing guardians for child trafficking victims would add "confusion and complexity" to the existing system.
Ecpat said coalition policy was formed with no consultation with child rights organisations, professionals or the young victims and so was "lacking in transparency, uninformed and without foundation".
"Children who have suffered months, if not years, of sexual abuse, violence and degrading treatment at the hands of traffickers need just one person they can trust, one person who can act in their best interest and someone who can make sure that they get the safety and support they need," said Christine Beddoe, chief executive of Ecpat UK. "We are convinced that guardianship will reduce the numbers of children going missing and being abused again and again."
The NSPCC warned trafficking is now "carried out like a military operation with victims being taken through several countries and passed along a line of criminal agents".
"The gangs who bring these vulnerable children into the UK are highly organised and ruthless," said John Cameron, head of the NSPCC's helpline. "Even if the children are intercepted by the authorities and put into care they are frequently tracked down again by the people exploiting them and spirited away to a slave-like existence."
Tuesday's figures showed that 21 of the children referred to the government this year were trafficked to work in cannabis farms. The report said all but three were Vietnamese boys and were in many cases orphans in Vietnam or in private fostering arrangements, before being trafficked through China to Russia and then over land in lorries to the UK. Sometimes they had already worked in cannabis farms in Russia and France.
"Victims are forced into working as 'gardeners' on private residences converted into cannabis farms," the report said. "Some have reported being locked in and prevented from leaving. These victims are not paid for their work and often claim they are coerced into working on cannabis farms through violence. Victims have also reported being sexually exploited."