Leading charities have called for an independent inquiry into how more than 200 asylum-seeking children have gone “missing” from Home Office hotels, describing the situation as “a child protection scandal”.
In a letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signed by more than 100 organisations, the charities warned that the children – many of whom had been living in southern seaside towns – were at risk of exploitation.
Their letter urges him to end the practice of housing young refugees who have been separated from their families in Home Office hotels, and instead place them with specialist local authority teams who can protect them.
Co-ordinated by ECPAT UK and the Refugee Council, the open letter has been signed by charities including the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, Action for Children, Coram, The Children’s Society and National Children’s Bureau.
It comes after Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick told MPs in the House of Commons on Tuesday that over 4,600 unaccompanied children have been accommodated in hotels since July 2021.
He added: “There have been 440 missing occurrences and 200 children remain missing, 13 of whom are under 16 years of age and only one of whom is female.”
He said 88% (176) of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children still missing are Albanian nationals, with the remaining 12% from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey.
The letter condemns the Government’s “reported failures to protect vulnerable children from harm”, and highlights how housing young refugees in hotels was intended to be used only as a short-term emergency option.
The letter states: “There is no legal basis for placing children in Home Office hotel accommodation, and almost two years into the operation of the scheme – which is both unlawful and harmful – it is no longer possible to justify the use of hotels as being ‘temporary’.
“It is a significant departure from the Children Act 1989 and established standards.”
The charities add that the Home Office has “repeatedly failed” to commit to an end date for the scheme.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, described the loss of dozens of refugees as “a child protection scandal”.
He said: “We know from our work that children who have experienced unimaginable horror and upheaval coming to our country in search of safety are highly traumatised and vulnerable.
“The Government has a very clear legal duty to protect them but is failing to do so with the equivalent of several classrooms of children seemingly having disappeared into the clutches of those who will exploit and abuse them.
“This is a child protection scandal that councils, the police and ministers must urgently address to ensure every single separated child matters and is kept safe.”
Patricia Durr, chief executive of ECPAT UK, called for “an urgent commitment to end this practice immediately”.
She said: “Despite evidence of the risks and numerous representations, the Government has ignored the warnings and is yet to commit to an exit strategy, seeming to prefer to entrench this discriminatory approach to some of the most vulnerable children with the greatest need of protection and care.
“We need an urgent commitment to end this practice immediately and to ensure that separated children are cared for and protected as all other children within our legal and well-established child welfare framework.
“Rather than setting up separate provision, the Government must provide local authorities with sufficient funds to properly fulfil their legal duties to children.”