The car drew up. The children got in: UK child asylum-seekers’ narrow escape from kidnap

<span>Photograph: Andy Hall/the Observer</span>
Photograph: Andy Hall/the Observer

The apparent audacity of the abduction appears to have been its undoing. On 25 May last year, a car pulled up outside a Brighton hotel holding 58 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Three of those young occupants got into the back seat. That might have been that – several more names among the hundreds currently missing – had a bystander not become sufficiently perturbed to call Sussex police and share the vehicle’s number plate.

Automatic number plate recognition technology tracked the vehicle north, on to London Road, then the M23, towards the capital. Officers quickly identified a problem. Normally, a forced traffic stop would be considered but intelligence suggested the three children were not wearing seatbelts.

Desperate not to lose the vehicle as it left the force’s area, officers dispatched undercover cars and began covertly tracking their target. “They then had to make another decision; they could put their blue lights on, but the last thing they wanted was a high-speed chase with these vulnerable kids in the back,” said Peter Kyle, MP for Hove, speaking after a police briefing.

A very British solution – weekday traffic on the motorway network – resolved their dilemma. The car hit a motorway traffic jam; officers quickly boxed in the vehicle and returned the three children to the Home Office. Two men were arrested on suspicion of intent to commit human trafficking, and were later released under investigation.

That episode highlights some of the challenges inherent in tracking down unaccompanied children. Real-time intelligence is vital but is relatively rare. Kyle said that on this occasion the children were found because police received “direct intelligence that was actionable”.

Hindering policing attempts more broadly is the fact that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are often unlikely to tell hotel staff or the police if they encounter anything suspicious. Some have travelled from countries with autocratic regimes where police are feared; others have been told to distrust any form of authority.

Many also remain in contact with the trafficking gangs that facilitated their small-boats crossing from France and who want to exploit the children to pay off any debt. Compounding the challenge is the savviness of the criminals targeting such vulnerable minors.

British-born kids are succumbing to criminal exploitation. Imagine how additionally vulnerable these kids are?

Peter Kyle, MP for Hove

Kyle, whose constituency contains the Brighton hotel for unaccompanied children, points to the number of British children groomed into county lines drug gangs as evidence of the dangers facing the new arrivals.

“These are kids from another country where English is not their first language. They’re not culturally adapted. British-born kids are succumbing to criminal exploitation. Imagine how additionally vulnerable these kids are?”

Once the child has disappeared, normal routes of tracking down a missing person can cease to exist. Police investigate family networks and friends and track mobile phone data when locating missing individuals, but there are frequently no such options in cases of missing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children; the children haven’t even gone missing from local authority care.

For Sussex police, the challenges are familiar. “The vast majority of these individuals have no known links to anybody in the country, very little money and in some cases no mobile phones, meaning there are very few lines of inquiry available when trying to locate them,” said a statement.

The National Police Chiefs Council, which helps forces coordinate operations, has identified broader issues. In its interim advice on missing asylum seekers, issued to forces last year (refreshed guidance covering unaccompanied children is still being drafted), it admits that “practices could be improved”.

Related: ‘They just vanish’: whistleblowers met by wall of complacency over missing migrant children

It identified that, on occasion, accurate details of missing asylum-seeking children were not recorded. “Biometrics are not always taken of the child, and consequently, if the child has not provided their correct name and date of birth, they will be circulated as missing with the incorrect details,” says the NPCC advice.

Even when located, complications exist. Police know the critical value of establishing early rapport with a youngster, particularly if they have been trafficked. Operation Innerste is a multi-agency initiative designed to prevent newly arrived children from being taken by traffickers, as well as ensuring a “greater chance of early recovery from missing episodes”. It advocates building a relationship of trust with unaccompanied children and creating a “safe environment” for them to express their needs.

In the meantime, investigations continue into the May 2022 incident, a case that may yet offer the first trafficking charges involving children from a hotel run by the Home Office.