Sixty-six children still missing after vanishing from Brighton asylum hotel
Lawyers for the home secretary have disclosed to a family court that 66 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children remain missing from just one local authority – Brighton and Hove – after disappearing from a hotel.
The number was revealed at an urgent hearing to address the fact that no agency has parental responsibility for the missing youngsters.
More than two months ago, a minister confirmed that 200 children – many of whom had arrived in the UK on small boats without a parent or guardian – disappeared after being placed in hotels run by contractors employed by the Home Office.
The figure included 76 youngsters who had vanished from a hotel in Brighton amid fears they had been targeted by criminal gangs.
Now a children’s charity has made an application to the family division of the high court “in unique circumstances” to have that cohort of 66 youngsters made wards of court. This means, if successful, the court would take responsibility for the young people and make decisions about their welfare.
At a private hearing in London on Friday, a senior judge said the missing children were falling through the gaps. Justice Nathalie Lieven told the court: “Brighton and Hove is saying ‘they are not our problem’. The secretary of state is saying – [they] ‘are individuals so it’s not me’.”
The Guardian was able to report the details after making an application to lift the automatic reporting restrictions that usually apply to family proceedings.
It was not confirmed whether all 66 children who are unaccounted for are among the 76 previously reported missing or whether the figure includes new arrivals who have subsequently disappeared. One of the youngsters had been located overnight before the hearing.
Suella Braverman, the home secretary, has confirmed that the names, dates of birth and nationalities of the children currently missing can be disclosed to the court. This comes after the organisation Article 39 – an NGO which works on behalf of children in institutional settings – requested the details in order for wardship to be considered.
Barrister Amanda Weston provided written submissions on behalf of the charity which explained that none of the asylum-seeking children had “looked-after” status or were being cared for by any local authority at the time they went missing – or currently.
She wrote: “The matters raised in this application are of the utmost gravity and urgency, concerning the protection and fundamental rights of some of the world’s most vulnerable children. [They] may have fled war and conflict in their homelands, they are alone and separated from their family; they are at constant risk of exploitation and trafficking.”
Weston said the Home Office had made assurances in September 2021 that the use of “unregulated hotel accommodation” was a short-term measure and children would be brought within the child protection system.
However, she said, the children have now been awaiting transfer into the system for 19 months. More than 4,600 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have been placed in hotels, 440 missing episodes have been recorded, and the total number of highly vulnerable children who remain missing across the country is unknown.
Meanwhile, the number of hotels being contracted for this purpose has increased from five to seven over the course of a year, according to the court documents.
In a position statement on behalf of the home secretary, barrister Lisa Giovannetti told the court her client recognised the “inherent vulnerability” of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. She wrote: “[She] takes her obligations towards such children extremely seriously, and regards such a child going missing as the matter of the utmost gravity.”
The court would be provided with the missing children’s details, Braverman’s lawyers told the court. Identifying information about children who previously were reported missing but later found would not be included, they said.
Carolyne Willow, the director of Article 39, which made the application with support from the Good Law Project, told the Guardian: “We are pleased that the family court has taken our application seriously, and the Home Office is having to account for the high level of very vulnerable children who remain missing from the hotels it runs.
“They should have been provided a safe and protective home within the children’s care system when they arrived in the UK.”
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The children’s personal details must remain confidential and are subject to reporting restrictions. A further hearing to discuss the next steps is scheduled for April.
The news comes as ministers are expected to toughen the illegal migration bill which returns to the Commons this week.
Willow said: “If passed, the bill will empower the home secretary to accommodate even more children outside the care system, and will reintroduce the routine detention of children, which was ended nearly a decade ago after extensive evidence of children suffering serious physical, emotional and psychological harm.”
The Home Office said the wellbeing of unaccompanied minors was a priority but that “those who arrive in the UK illegally” would not be able to settle here.
“The bill will enable the Home Office to provide accommodation and support for unaccompanied children who arrive in the UK illegally should we wish to use that power,” said a spokesperson.
“Taking these measures will send a clear message that children cannot be exploited and cross the Channel in small boats for the purpose of starting a new life in the UK.”