FOUR foreign children placed in state care during the past two years have gone missing and remain unaccounted for.
The children arrived in Ireland unaccompanied by a parent or a guardian and were placed in Health Service Executive care after they came to the attention of immigration officials.
Their disappearance has sparked fears they may have fallen victim to sex traffickers or are being exploited for their labour.
There is also the possibility they simply ran away to relatives living here or the UK.
Two of the children went missing this year.
The HSE said they were among 40 unaccompanied minors taken into care so far this year.
The other two missing children were among 42 taken into care in 2012.
Most of the children arriving in Ireland unaccompanied were from South Africa and Zimbabwe, the HSE said.
Gardai were notified as soon as it became apparent the children were missing and notices were circulated to every garda station in the country.
Despite their whereabouts remaining a mystery, the HSE defended its recent record in dealing with unaccompanied children.
It said the numbers going missing were much smaller than a few years ago.
Between 2002 and 2009, for example, 372 unaccompanied foreign minors went missing from state care. Of these only 60 were later accounted for.
The decline in missing children follows a policy change in 2010 which saw unaccompanied minors being placed in foster and residential care, with dedicated care workers, rather than in hostels.
A spokeswoman said: "These figures must be placed in context as they represent a huge reduction on the number of unaccompanied minors that have gone missing over a decade.
"Several factors have contributed to the reductions in these figures including the general reduction in the numbers of asylum seekers in line with the downturn in the economy.
"However, service initiatives have also contributed, in particular the decision by the HSE to withdraw from large hostel accommodation as a form of placement and also the implementation of a local Dublin-based protocol between the HSE and the Garda National Immigration Bureau for collaborative interviewing and screening of unaccompanied minors presenting at the ports."
Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, welcomed the drop in the number of missing children.
"The standard of care is far higher and much more diligent on the part of the HSE," she said.
But she added there were still huge concerns for the children who remained unaccounted for. "We'd be very concerned those children were moved off by traffickers and exploited for sexual and other purposes," she said.