A ‘significant number’ of child victims of human trafficking go missing from UK local authority care and back into the hands of people smugglers, a report published this week warns.

The report, compiled by the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), also ‘notes with concern’ that prosecutions and convictions for human trafficking in the UK are low compared with the number of offences identified.

But despite difficult economic times, the UK government has maintained funding to support victims of human trafficking at more than £2.75m per year, the report says.

Although the UK has made ‘significant progress’ in the fight against trafficking, the report calls for a range of new measures. These include drawing a clearer distinction between processing immigration and asylum cases, and dealing with the victims of trafficking; an amnesty on prosecuting offences that victims may have committed because of being trafficked; and recognising that trafficked people are victims of serious human rights abuses.

The report says that between 1 April 2009 and 31 March 2011, some 621 people were identified as victims of sexual exploitation, 465 as victims of labour exploitation and 253 as victims of domestic servitude. Child victims are brought to the UK for all these purposes, as well as for benefit fraud, cannabis farming and forced criminality, including begging and stealing, thereport says.

GRETA president Nicolas Le Coz said: ‘It is important that decisions on immigration and asylum are clearly separated from procedures to identify victims of trafficking, which hasn’t always happened in the UK. Similarly, a clear legal and policy framework is needed for the return of victims of trafficking to their countries of origin, as existing voluntary return programmes may not always be appropriate.

‘Significant numbers of children – including potential and confirmed victims of trafficking – currently go missing from local authority care in the UK. Steps should to be taken to address this, including by assigning a legal guardian to all unaccompanied children who are potentially victims of trafficking.

‘Otherwise there is a risk that some child victims will simply end up back in the hands of the traffickers.’