More than 100 charities have called on prime minister Rishi Sunak to stop the “unlawful” use by the Home Office of hotels from which hundreds of children seeking asylum have gone missing.
Sussex Police confirmed this week that 137 unaccompanied children had been reported missing from a hotel in Brighton and Hove — one of six in England where the Home Office has been accommodating child asylum seekers since July 2021.
Of the missing children in Brighton, 60 have since been located and another 76 are still being sought, the police said.
Responding to questions in parliament on Tuesday, immigration minister Robert Jenrick acknowledged that of 4,600 children seeking asylum who had been temporarily accommodated by the Home Office in hotels across the UK since July 2021, 440 had gone missing in total. Of those, 200 are still being sought, 13 of them under 16.
“We are writing as charities to express our grave concern that separated children seeking asylum are going missing, suspected of being trafficked and criminally exploited, from hotels where they have continued to be accommodated by the Home Office,” the charities, which include the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society, ECPAT UK and the Refugee Council.
“This is despite urgent requests to ministers and government departments to discontinue this practice and evidence that these children face significant harm,” they said.
The issue has come to a head this week after a whistleblower from the security company contracted by the Home Office spoke to the Observer newspaper about the situation in Brighton.
But it comes on top of a string of scandals over the Home Office’s handling of record numbers of asylum seekers crossing the Channel to England by small boat, with politicians on all sides describing the system as “broken”.
Charities, and some councils including Brighton and Hove, have repeatedly warned of the dangers in housing children at the hotels without proper safeguards and in legal circumstances that are unclear.
Normally, unaccompanied minors are the responsibility of the local authorities where they reside. However, in the case of Brighton and Hove, the Home Office accommodated the children without first informing the council, according to Brighton officials.
“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’,” the charities wrote in their letter to Sunak.
They also called on the government to commit to a date when the practice would cease and asked for an “urgent independent inquiry”, given the “reported failures to protect vulnerable children from harm”.
The Home Office said.: “Any child or minor going missing is extremely serious and we work around the clock with the police and local authorities to urgently locate them and ensure they are safe.
“We are determined to stop the use of hotels for all minors. To achieve this goal, we are providing local authorities with £15,000 for every unaccompanied child they take into their care.”