Missing Persons: A Handbook of Research

Patricia Hynes and Nicola Sharp-Jeffs highlight some of the issues raised in a new book on missing persons that they have contributed to. Their chapters review what is known about the links between going missing and the systems and processes in place to protect and safeguard people from different forms of exploitation and abuse including CSE, forced marriage and trafficking.

Last month a new book was launched which includes chapters written by Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, a Professional Doctorate student of the International Centre and Dr Patricia Hynes, an Associate Member of the International Centre. For the first time the book brings together ideas and expertise across the vast subject area of missing people.  It explores the subjects of missing children, missing adults, the investigative process of missing person cases and the impacts on families of missing people.

The majority of the 250,000 people reported missing each year in the UK are children under the age of 18. Yet relatively little is known about those who go missing, what happens to them while they are missing and what can be done to prevent these incidents from occurring.

Nicola’s firs51w5fysti9lt contribution is entitled Hidden Links? Going Missing as an Indicator of Child Sexual Exploitation. This chapter presents a summary of what is known about the links between child sexual exploitation and going missing within the research literature. It adopts the missing continuum developed by Biehal, Mitchell and Wade (2003) which recognises that missing incidents can range from intentional to unintentional breaks in contact.

Running away is presented as an intentional form of missing. Some young people will find themselves in risky situations and be vulnerable to the risk of CSE, often by an adult offering accommodation in return for sex. As well as being a situation that puts young people at risk, running away can also be a ‘symptom’ of sexual exploitation where children and young people are groomed to stay away from home. In contrast abduction is a form of unintentional missing where sexually exploited young people may be held against their will for a period of time. Another form of unintentional missing may be trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, where a young person is passed through networks, over geographic distances and between towns and cities.

The chapter concludes that an awareness of the relationship between going missing and child sexual exploitation is not only crucial to the identification of cases, but also in investigating, disrupting and prosecuting them.

Patricia’s contribution is entitled Missing Adults: Asylum Seekers and Human Trafficking and looks at people who are forced to migrate across international borders. The chapter examines the association between going missing during the process of forcible migration for ‘asylum seekers’ who have the right to refuge from persecution and those who are ‘trafficked’ for various forms of exploitative purposes. The label ‘asylum seeker’ has been mainstreamed in law, policy and practice and refers to people awaiting the outcome of refugee status determination procedures. The systems of support and surveillance of asylum seekers throughout the process of seeking asylum are highlighted and contrasted to the clandestine character of trafficking into, within and out of the UK.

Definitional differences, distinct legal frameworks, separate recording of statistics, different literatures and very distinct policy agendas surrounding asylum and trafficking make looking at the interface between these forced migrations difficult. However, how people go missing and what their lives look like as a result do overlap; in practice, the distinction between these populations becomes blurred. The chapter suggests that the interface between these two areas, where people go missing and are pushed into the informal economy, remains unexplored in the literature and little understood. Adding the frame of ‘going missing’ into the territory of asylum and trafficking results in no previous literature, with  the exception of some writing on children detailed in the chapter.  As Danielle Fritz outlined in her 11 May 2016 blog, children forced to migrate and currently in Europe are at risk of trafficking and CSE, many go ‘missing’, but little is known about where they have gone, what has happened to them and what the actual scale of this issue is given the lack of reliable data available (Sigona and Allsop, 2016).  What is clear is that the care and control of asylum seekers in the hostile environment of UK asylum policy can lead to exploitative circumstances. It is also clear that the clandestine character of trafficking has overlaps with the UK asylum and immigration regime.

A chapter by Chloe Setter from ECPAT UK begins to look at this overlap for children, how both unaccompanied and trafficked children are accommodated in the UK and how, when a child goes missing, this in itself can be a strong indicator of trafficking. A report by ECPAT UK and Missing People, launched on 16 November 2016, looks at this further. Entitled Heading Back to Harm: A Study on Trafficked and Unaccompanied Children Going Missing from Care in the UK, the report details how 28% of identified trafficked children in care (167 children) and 13% of unaccompanied children (593 children) went missing between September 2014 and September 2015. Young people speaking on the panel during the launch spoke about how they did not think they were believed or trusted by professionals:

“Social workers did not believe my name, age or nationality and I was told I was not a priority.”

“This confirms what the traffickers have made you believe.”

“The services should not neglect people from other countries.”

A second chapter by Nicola is called To Honour and Obey? Forced Marriage, Honour-Based Violence and Going Missing. This chapter also draws on the concepts of ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional’ missing incidents. For young people there is overlap in the profiles of forced marriage victims and those who run away missing; most commonly young women aged between 12 and 17 years of age. However the picture in relation to ethnicity is more mixed. Surveys consistently appear to indicate significantly lower rates of running away amongst young people of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, but the chapter explores and challenges the contention that the ‘problem’ of runaway boys and girls affects only a very small part of the South Asian population. The real numbers may be masked by low reporting from family members because of beliefs about honour/shame and by young people themselves because of fear of the reprercussions.

At the same time it is recognised that young women and girls who go missing as a consequence of exiting a forced marriage situation may be at risk of abduction by family members seeking to find them. They may then be falsely imprisoned until they ‘agree’ to the marriage. The parents of a young person may also take them out of the UK against their will or trick them into going abroad (for example, being told that an elderly relative is dying) and then force them to marry. This too can be defined as a form of trafficking for child sexual exploitation. Whilst it is common for trafficking into the UK for the purposes of under-age and forced marriage to be noted within the research literature, little reference is made within the literature to young people who are taken out of the UK or moved within the UK for the same purpose.

The chapter argues that the police and other professionals working in statutory agencies (education, health, housing and benefits) need to recognise that forced marriage can be both a cause and a consequence of going missing and that the dynamics and risks surrounding this and other forms of ‘honour’ based violence should be considered in training and investigation.

Each of these chapters highlight what is and is not known about links between going missing and the systems and processes in place to protect and safeguard people from different forms of exploitation and abuse. Movement into, within and out of the UK also links the work of authors, in particular drawing attention to the dearth of knowledge surrounding those taken out of the UK.

More information about the book is available at the website