Child asylum seekers in UK made to play game about who gets foster care places

<span>The Home Office is inquiring into a report by the borders inspectorate about workers’ behaviour towards unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.</span><span>Photograph: Yui Mok/PA</span>
The Home Office is inquiring into a report by the borders inspectorate about workers’ behaviour towards unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

The Home Office has launched an inquiry after staff made unaccompanied asylum-seeking children play a game in which they had to guess who would be the next one to be placed in foster care, a watchdog’s report has disclosed.

The report, one of 13 written by the borders inspectorate and released on Thursday, also found that agency workers employed to look after children as young as nine had received “insufficient” background checks and training.

The findings from David Neal were set out in stark terms finally published by the Home Office on Thursday after months of delays.

Neal, the former chief inspector of borders and immigration, was sacked last week after he was embroiled in a row over concerns he was raising in a report submitted over security checks at airports – one of two outstanding documents still yet to be published by the Home Office.

An inspector working for Neal at one of four hotels where dozens of children were living was shocked to hear that they were gathered together when one of their number was to be placed with a foster family.

“One team leader described the process by which they would disclose to the children who would be the next to leave for a placement,” the report said. “This involved ‘making a game of it’, asking them to guess who would be next, before revealing their name.

“Inspectors considered this to be insensitive in the extreme and undoubtedly upsetting to the children.”

In the re-inspection of four hotels where children were being housed, the borders inspector found there was no guarantee that staff had been given regular disclosure and barring services (DBS) clearances.

In evidence to the re-inspection, the Home Office reported that between July 2021 and 8 September 2023, 147 children had left the hotels without supervision and remained unaccounted for.

Findings in other reports include that Rishi Sunak’s push to clear the legacy backlog of asylum cases had resulted in “perverse outcomes for claimants”, with more than a fifth of cases being withdrawn and only one being subjected to quality assurance.

“The number of claims that have been withdrawn and counted as ‘outcomes’ has soared – 22% of all decisions made since June 2022 were withdrawals, and, incredibly, only one underwent formal quality assurance,” the report said. “This is not acceptable.

“Routine quality assurance on interviews and decisions has also been sacrificed for increased productivity. This has the potential to add to the appeals queue as a result of poor-quality refusals, and to further prolong the length of time a claimant’s life is put on hold.”

Inspectors examined 49 claims that had been labelled by asylum caseworkers as being “implicit withdrawals” – meaning that a claimant was considered to be non-compliant with the asylum process or an absconder. They found that 28 were unsatisfactory.

“Specific areas of concern included four (8%) ‘Withdrawn Implicit’ cases where the invitation to interview letter and the failure to attend interview letter had been produced and dispatched on the same day,” the report said.

Afghans who were fleeing to the UK after the Taliban takeover were found to be “unknowingly failing” to meet resettlement scheme requirements because of a “secret policy” by the Home Office on hotel accommodation, another report said.

Neal said the Home Office quietly paused entry to the UK for applicants who otherwise met the requirements, and a lack of communication about that pause was of particular concern.

He wrote: “Home Office operation of an unpublished or ‘secret’ policy contrary to its published policy has been found to be unlawful in the past.

“The lack of transparency regarding this policy may also undermine public confidence in Afghan resettlement schemes.”

Other findings include:

  • An inspection of UK airports found that the “border is neither effective nor efficient” after discovering posts unstaffed. Neal was particularly critical of Luton airport, where the referrals desks were poorly positioned, creating a stressful and distracting environment.

  • The Home Office has a “culture of defensiveness” and “will not change” if it does not want to, the borders and immigration watchdog warned in a report produced before he was fired.

In his annual report, covering April 2022 to March 2023, Neal said the Home Office had a “reluctance to engage” with recommendations for improvement and he had experienced “significant pushback” while drafting inspection reports, including responses that “have gone way beyond” just checking factual accuracy.

“Some of this is perhaps down to a culture of defensiveness, but it is not good”, he said.

Diana Johnson, the Labour chair of the Commons home affairs committee, said: “Not only have all these reports been published in one go, but there is no ICIBI [independent chief inspector of borders and immigration] in post to provide a press release or a commentary on the contents of these reports.

“This is wholly inadequate and raises serious questions about what the Home Office has been doing all this time.”

A Home Office spokesperson said on Thursday: “The safety and welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is our utmost priority.

“Following the inspection’s findings, we launched a full investigation into the inappropriate behaviour of the support worker, who was removed from site immediately and did not return.

“Since the two ICIBI inspections in 2022 and 2023, we have closed all seven hotels used to accommodate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.”