Data collected in an investigation by the Independent has exposed that 20 lone children seeking asylum went missing from government hotels between July and December last year – an alarming rate of one per week. Half of these children are still missing.
Children going missing vulnerable to exploitation
Advocates fear that children leaving government accommodation may be facing pressure from traffickers to pay off “debts” they incurred from traveling to the UK. Elaine Ortiz, founder of youth refugee charity Hummingbird Refugee Project explained:
“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.”
Children arriving to the U.K. alone began to be housed in hotel accommodation in July 2021, a measure that was intended to be temporary though children continue to be housed in this way. Ofsted, a government department inspecting services that care for children and young people, described the conditions of the accommodation as “unacceptable”. The Refugee Council also deemed the long-term use of this accommodation for lone children as inappropriate.
Home Office fails to take responsibility
Though the Home Office has claimed that children are cared for by care workers, the lack of clarity around who is responsible for the wellbeing of unaccompanied children is unacceptable and driving children’s vulnerability to exploitation. The Home Office claims the local authority in which children are residing is responsible for them, while local authorities told the Independent that they believed the Home Office is responsible.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action an organization working to defend the rights of people in immigration detention, told the Independent:
“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.”
Freedom United is calling on the U.K. to support trafficked children in the U.K. by establishing a process to find a long-term, sustainable arrangement for each child victim of trafficking, including providing each child with an immigration decision that is based on their best interests.