Disappearing students, missed clues and a secret trafficking scandal that rocked England's private schools

Dozens of teenagers arrived from Vietnam. Then they vanished.

This week’s story is the result of an investigation I’ve been working on for almost a year. I first reported that there had been a spate of disappearances of Vietnamese teenagers from English boarding schools last year in The Times. Today The Mill can reveal three more disappearances - which took place in Manchester - and the background of how this scandal came to light.

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Just over three years ago, on the afternoon of Friday May 26 2017, Tower FM listeners learned that three Vietnamese teenagers had gone missing. 

The local radio station covers Bury and Bolton, and it had picked up the story because one of the teenagers - a 17-year-old girl called Trang Thu Nguyen - had disappeared from the Bury area. Her two friends, Trung Dao and Hoai Thi Nguyen, both aged 16, had gone missing from Moston in Manchester on the same day. 

And that day was now almost a fortnight ago. Police were growing increasingly concerned for the teenagers’ welfare. Detective Sergeant Ian Partington from the Bury station of Greater Manchester Police asked the public to get in touch. “If anyone recognises the people in the photos, please come forward,” he said. 

The teenagers who went missing - Trang Thu Nguyen, Trung Dao and Hoai Thi Nguyen

The news of their disappearance wasn’t a particularly big story. Sadly, there’s nothing unusual about Vietnamese teenagers going missing - they are the foreign nationality you are most likely to see on the police’s missing persons database. Around the same time, another seven Vietnamese minors went missing from a care home in Rochdale, having arrived in the UK in the back of a lorry. 

But there was something very unusual about Trang and her two friends - something that wasn’t made public at the time. They had gone missing from a private school. 

At the time of the disappearance, Mark Taylor had worked as a solicitor in Bradford for many years, specialising in immigration law. Some of his best clients were private schools, particularly ones with large intakes of students from overseas. Among other things, Taylor helped the schools navigate immigration rules, to ensure the foreign students kept getting their study visas and the schools stayed on the right side of the Home Office. 

A few months before Trang and her friends went missing, in January 2017, Taylor posted a status on LinkedIn, informing his contacts about a disturbing new development. “In the last few months I have been informed of a troubling number of Vietnamese students who have simply disappeared from a number of boarding schools across the UK,” Taylor wrote. He said he was collecting evidence from the cases and trying to identify common threads, which he planned to pass to the Home Office and the police. 

This was a new problem, and it was the most serious crisis at private schools Taylor had ever seen. Another immigration lawyer, called Pat Saini, who was consulted by a number of private schools affected, called the disappearances “the worst safeguarding issue that we have come across”. She told me: “People [from the schools] were out looking for students in certain parts of the country. They were hunting round some towns and helping with the police. We were living and breathing this with our clients, [asking] where are your 15-year-olds?”

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) and the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) wrote to their members, telling them to be on their guard. “These looked like perfectly legitimate students,” a former staff member at the ISC told me. “It was absolutely terrifying to be honest. To this day I haven’t found out what actually happened to the children.” In April, a month before the three teenagers disappeared in Manchester, Taylor posted on LinkedIn again. “You may have seen my recent advice regarding the disappearance of Vietnamese students,” he wrote. “Recruited to independent schools, the students attended classes diligently only to disappear. They have not been found.” 

Taylor requested detailed files from the schools about the students - including who their parents were, where they came from, and whether they had been “recruited” in Vietnam via education agents, or had applied to the schools directly. All of them had come to the UK on Tier 4 child visas, which can only be sponsored by private schools and do not require an English language test. They are effectively a special boarding school visa - and they seem to have created a loophole in the immigration system that someone had figured out they could exploit.

One thing immediately didn’t make sense to Taylor. The missing students were mainly from rural areas, even though most of Vietnam’s prosperous middle class live in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the two cities at the country’s opposite poles. Vietnamese students have been coming to study at schools and universities in Britain in large numbers since the 1990s, and the vast majority have come from wealthy families in the cities. Every year, British private schools pay to take part in educational fairs in Vietnam, where representatives of the schools pitch their services to such parents. The fairs tend to make one stop in Hanoi, and one stop in Ho Chi Minh City. 

The student files perplexed Taylor. “Would a farmer from northern Vietnam have been able to pay not insubstantial school fees annually?” he asked rhetorically on LinkedIn. The answer seemed to be no, and yet all of the missing students had paid at least a term’s fees, anywhere between £3,000 and £10,000. Which is a lot in England, but an awful lot more in rural Vietnam. And if these families had got the money together to pay enormous school fees, why had their children run away? By the summer, Taylor was growing frustrated. He spoke to his clients, and explained what needed to happen next. Then he caught a flight to Hanoi. 

Abbey College Manchester is situated in a cheerless, glass fronted office building on Cheapside, three minutes walk from Albert Square. It teaches GCSEs and A-levels to mainly wealthy overseas students. A year of A-level study costs almost £25,000, but that doesn’t include accommodation. Students either live with host families (which costs about £10,000 a year) or in Riverside House, a massive student residence bloc on the River Irwell in Salford, with 24 hour security guards and concierge services. A room in one of its flats costs £13,400 for the school year. 

Long before the disappearance of Trang, Trung and Hoai, teachers at the college sometimes worried about the students they met at the start of the school year. “Some of them are 14-15, can barely speak the language, live with strangers and often the courses they are enrolled on are completely unsuitable,” one former staff member said. The college was well run and the teachers did the best for the students who were thrust into their care from every corner of the globe, but he “had concerns about whether some students should be with us.” He says he would ask himself: “Morally, are we doing the right thing?” 

The college is owned by Alpha Plus Group, the second largest educational company in the UK, which controls a series of private schools, including Wetherby, the exclusive West London school chosen by Princess Diana for her sons William and Harry. Alpha Plus is a big part of a relatively new and much more capitalist wing of British education: for-profit schools and colleges, focused on international students and owned by large companies. These companies are mostly in the hands of private equity investors, and have dramatically expanded in the past decade, acquiring struggling private schools that were previously owned by families or trusts. 

Alpha Plus also runs Abbey College’s sister school in London, DLD College London. And that should have alerted them to what was about to happen in Manchester. Because by May 2017, several Vietnamese girls had gone missing from DLD College. One of the missing girls was 15. But the former staff member at Abbey College Manchester says staff were not told about the missing girls in London. “We didn’t even know it was a thing until our three went missing. It was a completely new phenomenon.” 

It’s unclear why Trang was in the Bury area when she went missing, and why Trung and Hoai were in Moston. Most likely, that’s where their host families were. When the college's staff were told that the three had gone missing, they initially assumed the students had gone away together, and were playing up. Then the police came in, and it dawned on everyone that something more troubling was going on.

“We can confirm that three students at the college from Vietnam went missing at the same time in 2017,” a spokesman for the college told The Mill. “Their absence was immediately reported to the police. In responding, we have followed all the appropriate procedures in co-operation with the authorities.” The spokesman said the prior disappearances at DLD College “were discussed in detail among the senior leadership at the colleges at the time” and that it wasn’t necessary to inform all staff. After the DLD girls vanished, the company ordered an “audit and assessment of all Vietnamese students at each of the colleges at the time,” the spokesman said. They added: “The safety and well-being of our students is always our number one priority.”

The incident caused deep alarm at Abbey College Manchester. It is extremely unusual for students to go missing from private schools, and when it happens they normally come back within hours. For three students to go missing on one day was unheard of. But as investigators at the Home Office, Mark Taylor and a select group of private school head teachers and administrators across England were quick realising, something bigger was going on.

The official purpose for Taylor’s visit to Vietnam, and the reason one of his clients was paying for his trip, was to vet future students. The school had a lot of pending applications, and it couldn’t afford a repeat. The Home Office was still investigating why on earth so many Vietnamese teenagers had gone missing, but schools didn’t need to be told that if it happened again, they would likely lose their license to sponsor international students, meaning their businesses would collapse. But Taylor also saw the trip as an opportunity to figure out why the students had vanished. So he hired an interpreter and contacted the parents of the students across Vietnam, inviting them to come and speak to him. 

“They all met me in Hanoi, willingly,” he told me, sometimes at the office of one of the education agents, sometimes at a hotel. “I think they thought I knew something,” he says. “These were hard working parents. And they didn’t see that they had done anything wrong at all. Not one of them gave me the impression that they had any remorse at all. They felt this was a good thing they had done for their child.” 

But what had they done? “They were all paid the equivalent in Vietnamese đồng of about £25,000, and each one of them received that,” he told me. “They showed me their bank statements. Their bank statements coincided with the time of their [children’s] application.” It didn’t take Taylor to make the obvious inference. “The parents sold their kids - that’s the truth of it,” he told me. “From their perspective, it was the right thing to do.” When he asked them where their daughters or sons were, they were “incredibly cagey” and said they didn’t know. “Have you spoken to them?” he asked. “Yes I have.” “Are they safe?” “Yes.” 

After I first heard this story from Taylor, I called a trafficking expert called Mimi Vu in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. “It just doesn’t make any sense this way round,” she told me, referring to the idea of the parents receiving money for - “selling” - their kids. “You [the traffickers or smugglers] would never pay - because you have thousands lined up who are willing to pay,” she said. The massive deposits Taylor saw in the parents’ bank accounts were not payments, according to Vu. They were a clever way to show the British authorities and schools that the parents had enough money to afford the fees. The money would then be paid back to the organisers. And, on net, it would be the parents paying the traffickers to get their children to the UK. She had seen a similar pattern in a visa scam involving Vietnamese people in eastern Europe. “In reality that money is a loan - it has to be returned,” she said. 

Vu said there are three categories of families whose children might end up in Britain. “You have the ultra wealthy or the very middle class who can send their kids to international schools in Vietnam, and then they are able to go into schools or high schools or universities in Europe or the US,” she told me. These are the kinds of students who have been paying handsome fees to institutions like Abbey College Manchester for years. Then at the opposite end of the spectrum, you have very poor Vietnamese families who scrape together money to pay for a child to come to Europe on the notorious over-land route, coming through Russia, eastern Europe, Germany, France and then across the channel in a mixture of cars and lorries. For this a family might need to raise a minimum of £8,000 and often much more, in the hope that their child will have a better life and more than pay back that investment by getting unofficial work in the UK. 

“Then there’s this route,” she said - the student visa route - which is much safer than the back of a lorry. She thinks she heard of it four or five years ago, and says it is much less common than the other two. “I’ve been hearing about it in conferences and meetings, but only in passing, as a way of getting to the UK,” she told me. She didn’t know of any specific cases or any concrete details.

I first learned about Vietnamese students going missing from private schools around this time last year. Initially I was told about one school, but as I spoke to people at other schools with large international intakes, I heard about more and more cases. Most of the missing students were girls, and many seem to have been introduced to the schools by education agents, working on commission. It seemed that traffickers who specialise in getting Vietnamese teenagers into the UK had discovered that if they used unscrupulous education agents to get teenagers introduced to English schools, the schools would then sponsor them to study in the UK on Tier 4 visas. It seems that families would pay the traffickers to cover the first term’s fees, and then the students would disappear, although I’ve found the precise details of the financial arrangements between the parents and the traffickers difficult to stand up.

By November last year, I had confirmed 21 missing Vietnamese students, all of whom had gone missing from private schools in the past four years. The Times published the investigation, which I did with Times reporter Katie Gibbons. Almost all of them were girls, and most were still missing. Incredibly, eight Vietnamese children had gone missing from one west London school - another for-profit outfit called Chelsea Independent College, owned by Astrum Education, which is a competitor to Alpha Plus. Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, described the disappearances as “truly shocking” and “unthinkable” and urged the Home Office to urgently address the problem.

The morning after the story was published in The Times, the BBC’s Mishal Husain asked the Chief Executive of the Independent Schools Council live on Radio 4: “How many times has this happened?” Robinson replied that the ISC — which lobbies for private schools — only knew about “a very small number of cases.” A few weeks later, Katie and I confirmed three more disappearances, including a 17-year-old girl who disappeared in January 2017 from Bosworth Independent College in Northampton and a girl who didn’t come back to Padworth College in Berkshire after the Christmas holidays. And today The Mill’s new reporting on Trang, Trung and Hoai takes the total confirmed cases to 27. One school staff member, who is considered an expert in marketing to students in Asia, told me he thinks the real number of missing Vietnamese children is at least double that number. “My estimate would be 50 or more were lost,” he said.

When Mimi Vu visits the UK, she makes a point of having her nails done a lot, and says she often meets school-age girls in the salons. “When their parents send the kids, they really do think they are getting a better life,” she says. “They think they are going to do nails, and earn $4000 a month. There are decades of these stories being told.” What actually happens to the children when they get to the UK is very difficult to establish. Some have been found working in nail bars. But Vu says nails bars “are definitely not the whole game.” Traffickers she has studied are usually more interested in bringing girls to countries like the UK than boys, because girls can be exploited for sex. “They can be used for sexual exploitation and labour exploitation, whereas boys can only be used for one,” she says. “Women and girls - their value as a product on the market in the trafficking trade is much higher. They an be put into nail bars and forced into bondage, but then they can also be forced into prostitution in the evening.” 

Four months after the Manchester disappearances, a 15-year-old girl called Thi Thuy Trang Ho landed in the UK to start at her boarding school in Malvern, Worcestershire. Confusingly, it is also called Abbey College, but has no links to Abbey College Manchester, except for some similarity in intake: both schools take a lot of foreign students. The school boasts on its website that it has educated “the children and grandchildren of kings, heads of state and other pre-eminent global figures”.

Thi was known at the school as Tracy, and turned 16 in October. Two months later, on the afternoon of Thursday December 14th 2017, she was reported missing. The local newspaper, who like Tower FM didn’t know the disappearance had anything to do with a private school, described Tracy in detail, based on the information provided by the school to police: “She is described as around 5ft 2in tall, of average build, with shoulder length straight black hair, a straight fringe, and dark-coloured eyes”. When she went missing, she was wearing a black three-quarter-length jacket with a black hood and a fur trim. 

Thi Thuy Trang Ho (or Hi), known as Tracy, went missing in December 2017, aged 16

Within a month of her disappearance, Tracy had been found. A Home Office document I’ve seen shows that she was discovered on January 10th working in a nail bar in Normanton, a small town in West Yorkshire, just north-east of Wakefield. Because of her age, she was then taken into care in Birmingham, where she was looked after while an application for leave to remain was submitted on her behalf. Malcolm Wood, principal of Abbey College, said: “We took this case extremely seriously. No failings by this college were found by any of the authorities who looked into this case.”

In my whole time investigating this story, the discovery that Tracy was found in Normanton was the only time I knew for sure what had happened to one of the students after they went missing. It was by far the best lead I had. In some cases I looked into, the police or the school confirmed that the student had been found, but I knew no other details. And in the majority of cases, the teenagers are still missing. So on a grey, intermittently rainy day early this year, I got in my car and drove to West Yorkshire. 

There are several nail bars in Normanton, but only one of them is Vietnamese. I’m choosing not to name the business because I don’t want to expose the current staff to unwanted attention online, especially because it’s unclear how much they knew about where Tracy had come from. As far as I know, no one from the nail bar has ever been charged with a criminal offence. A woman who works in a salon nearby told me she remembered a police raid on the business. She saw a couple of officers outside the shop, turning customers away. “There were all sorts of rumours flying around,” she remembers. Someone else I met in Normanton happened to be in the police station having a meeting that day, and saw the owner there after she had been arrested. “She was upset - she couldn’t speak,” the person said. “I asked her if she was ok, and she said they’d been raided by the police. The police were looking for someone.” 

West Yorkshire Police visited the nail bar on January 10th 2018, acting on intelligence that a missing 16-year-old was working there. “Officers located the missing person and arrested three males and two females present on suspicion of human trafficking,” a spokesman for the force told me. “No offences were reported or disclosed to officers and following further enquiries the crime was filed with no further action taken against the five persons arrested.” A Home Office spokesman says that later, in July 2018, Immigration Enforcement officials returned to the nail bar, and one Brit and four Vietnamese nationals were spoken to, two of whom were arrested for immigration offences.

The nail bar is narrow, and has a reception desk on the right when you walk in, and a couple of treatment tables on the left. It has six “seats” in total. There is a plastic cat waving mechanically in the window. When I went in, it was close to closing time and a man in a hoodie was sweeping. An older woman briefly emerged from the bathroom, and then disappeared at the back of the shop. The young woman working at reception told me she had only been working there for a few months, and didn’t recognise a picture I showed her of Tracy on my phone. The staff, none of whom looked like teenagers, said they couldn’t help me. Outside I asked a customer whether she recognised the picture, but she didn’t, and said she wasn’t a regular anyway. 

The police’s discovery of Tracy in this nail bar raises a lot of questions. Why did the business take on a 16 year girl who had just vanished from a boarding school and was the subject of a missing persons search? Who had organised for Tracy to get to Yorkshire? How much were they paying her? One of the people I spoke to in Normanton said she was sure the girls in the nail bar lived nearby, because when it was busy, the owner would make a phone call and an extra nail girl would turn up within minutes. “I know someone who went for a job there and she was being offered something like £3 an hour,” the woman told me. “It was way under the minimum wage, and that was about two years ago.” I wasn’t able to speak to the person who went for the job, so the story counts as hearsay.

So do the rumours that swirled around Normanton after the raid - rumours that the upstairs bathroom had lots of toothbrushes and shampoo bottles. One woman I spoke to said her friend - who was sending her texts about it as we chatted - had seen three mattresses in one of the upstairs rooms. I tried to ask the nail bar’s owner whether there was any truth to these rumours, via a Facebook message, but she didn’t want to talk about it. Regarding Tracy, she wrote “I’m sorry I did not hire her or find her.” She said she didn’t want to answer my questions, and said: “I have no idea about her now, sorry”.

And neither do I. I know Tracy was in care in Birmingham in 2018. I spoke to her foster mother, who confirmed Tracy lived in her house in a down-at-heel neighbourhood of the city, but couldn’t say more. It’s possible she got leave to remain, or returned to Vietnam. It’s also possible she is back working in nail bars.

Greater Manchester Police told The Mill the two students who went missing from Moston were later found. Trang hasn’t been. The police believed the three students travelled to Croydon in London after they disappeared. Neither the school nor the police seem to know what has happened to Trang. 

One of the artificial things about traditional journalism is how stories end. Newspapers and TV programs report something, and then sometimes you never hear about it again. If reporters want to return to a story they care about, they are often told by editors: “We’ve done that one.” It’s happened to me a number of times in my career, and to every other reporter. Novelty is everything in news - it’s in the name after all - and when something ceases to be newit often gets left. 

But that’s not how life works. Stories carry on. Lives carry on. Things don’t stop when we get bored of them. Often the most important thing we can do as journalists is to hang around on the street corner after the fight has broken up and the police have left. Someone might come back to pick something up. They might tell you stuff you didn’t know. You might figure out why the fight started, and what the whole thing was actually about.

Which is a long way of saying: I don’t know what has happened to Tracy, and Trang, and dozens of the girls who disappeared from private schools. I know almost nothing about the kind of conditions under which they worked after they disappeared, and under which many of them will still be working today. I also don’t know - but can guess - how life might have been for them during the long months of lockdown: without work and trapped with employers who hold a great deal of power over them.

But I’ll try to find out. Trang has been missing for just over three years. She will be somewhere - in a nail bar, or the back room of a shop or in one of the corridors of our byzantine immigration process. Maybe one of you readers knows something and will drop me an email. I can’t guarantee I’ll figure it out. But at some point later this year, I’ll come back, and tell you what I know. 

Trang Thu Nguyen went missing from the Bury area more than three years ago. She was 17.

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