A lone child refugee goes missing from unregulated government hotels every week on average, The Independent can reveal.
Campaigners fear vulnerable children who have crossed the Channel alone are facing abuse and exploitation following their arrival in the UK as they are left in “inappropriate” hotel accommodation without adequate care and protection after it emerged that 20 went missing in less than five months – half of whom remain unaccounted for.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper labelled the figures “disturbing”, warning that it was likely these youngsters “may be back in the hands of the traffickers”. She called for “urgent action” to ensure vulnerable children were kept safe.
The Home Office began placing unaccompanied child asylum seekers in unregulated hotels on 20 July last year after Kent County Council refused to take more in, saying it was at “breaking point”. The Independent understands hundreds of children are housed across five hotels in the south of England, with dozens of those placed in hotels since July having been under the age of 14 and a small number below the age of 10.
Data obtained by The Independent via freedom of information (FOI) laws reveals 16 minors went missing from these hotels between 20 July and 25 November, a rate of at least once a week. Seven of the 16 have subsequently been found – leaving nine unaccounted for.
Further figures provided to The Independent by Kent Police and Sussex Police – the areas where these hotels are located – reveal that between 25 November and 2 December there were four more reports of children going missing, two in each region. Three have since been found.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said: “After surviving unimaginable dangers to journey here, these children should finally have felt safe and protected. Instead, Priti Patel, the home secretary, has ignored all warnings that these hotels were inappropriate for children and must now take action to find these missing children before it’s too late.”
Elaine Ortiz, founder of the Hummingbird Refugee Project, a youth refugee charity in Brighton, which used to be based in Calais, said some of the reasons for children leaving hotels could be linked to paying off “debts” for their journeys to Britain.
“We saw the level of exploitation of the children and young people in Calais by smugglers and gangs. We also heard about harassment and violence towards young people by gang members in order to pay their ‘debts’. I believe that this may contribute to reasons why children go missing in the UK,” she said.
It comes after Ofsted described the the housing of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in hotels as “unacceptable” and said it was “concerned” by their continued use.
The Refugee Council was contracted by the Home Office to provide advice and support to children in hotels at the end of September 2021, on the basis that it was a temporary measure. However, the charity told The Independent it was ending the arrangement this month because it did not believe the long-term use of hotels for child refugees “meets their needs or is appropriate”.
In response to the new FOI data, a spokesperson said: “These are very vulnerable and traumatised children who have already faced terrible experiences and are at risk of neglect or at worse exploitation unless all steps are taken to make sure they are kept safe.”
The Home Office said hotels remained a “temporary measure”, and that while there, children were cared for by “dedicated care workers 24/7” and visited by social workers, and nurses attended at least three days a week.
Where the responsibility for these children lies remains unclear. The Home Office states that the local authority in which the hotels are placed hold responsibility for them, but Brighton and Hove Council and Kent County Council told The Independent the Home Office was responsible.
Ms Cooper said that this uncertainty was “completely reprehensible”.
Patricia Durr, chief executive officer at youth charity Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (Ecpat UK), said that these children going missing was an “inevitable and completely avoidable risk” that resulted from placing them in hotels with “no clear corporate parental responsibility or care” and in “direct contravention of principles of the Children Act 1989”.
A Kent County Council spokesperson added that when unaccompanied minors go missing it followed “missing children” protocols, which involve both the police and the Home Office. A Brighton and Hove Council spokesperson said it followed “established safeguarding processes” when any child went missing.
A government spokesperson said it took the issue of any child going missing “extremely seriously” and worked “closely” with local authorities to ensure vulnerable children are “supported appropriately”.
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