Asylum seekers: Home Office accused of ‘catastrophic child protection failure’

Exclusive: over 220 unaccompanied children revealed as missing from hotels funded by the department

More than 220 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are missing from hotels funded by the Home Office, prompting claims that the chaos-stricken government department is presiding over a “catastrophic child protection failure”.

Ministers have admitted that the Home Office has no idea of the whereabouts of 222 vulnerable children it was meant to be protecting.

One child, it reveals, disappeared on the same day that they arrived at Home Office hotel accommodation and has since been missing for almost a year.

The immigration minister, Tom Pursglove, gave details of 142 of the missing youngsters, of whom 39 had been missing for at least 100 days.

Seventeen went missing within a day of the Home Office placing them in a hotel.

Nine were 15 years old when they disappeared and 32 were aged 16, according to the data, which includes numbers missing until last Wednesday.

The number of missing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, revealed in a parliamentary answer late on Friday, raises fresh concern over the Home Office’s decision to start housing children in hotels along the south-east coast, keeping them out of the care of local authorities.

The department began contracts with hotel owners in July 2021 to house children arriving in the UK across the Channel on small boats without parents or carers.

There was further chaos for the Home Office on Saturday when its most senior asylum chief was revealed to have resigned as “chaos and confusion” grows over the rapid turnaround of home secretaries, failures to tackle Channel crossings and the widely derided Rwanda deal.

Emma Haddad’s decision to quit came a day after the charter airline hired to remove asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda pulled out of the scheme over negative publicity.

Carolyne Willow, the director of Article 39, which campaigns for the rights of children in state institutions, said the volume of vulnerable missing children required dramatic intervention.

“This is a catastrophic child protection failure. The risks to children were always substantial, obvious and stark, yet the Home Office, with the assent of the Department for Education, has wilfully kept children out of the local authority children’s care system, and has failed in its duty of care.

“Had they been in care instead of Home Office-contracted hotels, every child who has gone missing, and remains missing, would have been entitled to a multitude of protections including access to independent advocates, health assessments, arrangements to get them a school or college place, visiting social workers and independent reviewing officers to ensure local authorities are fulfilling their obligations.

A damning report revealed last week that unaccompanied children seeking asylum had been living in hotels alongside adults whose backgrounds had not been checked.

An independent inspection severely criticised the Home Office after staff in two hotels were found not to have been checked by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), as is required by government rules.

Willow also pointed to the Children Act 1989, which places responsibility for the care and protection of children without parents and carers on local authorities, which, she said, contained no provision for the arrangement to be cancelled when a child was born outside the UK.

“Children should have been found loving homes with foster carers or been able to recover from their traumatic experiences in children’s homes registered and inspected by Ofsted. Instead, they were grouped together on the basis of not being born in this country and hidden away in hotels, when the government’s own statutory guidance confirms similar bed and breakfast accommodation is unsuitable for vulnerable children, even in an emergency,” she said.

Patricia Durr, chief executive of ECPAT UK, said: “We remain significantly concerned that what was meant to be an emergency solution has now been kept in place for over 14 months with no end in sight.”

Durr added: “The home secretary must immediately take steps to cease this unlawful accommodation of unaccompanied children.”

Responding to a written question by the Labour MP Helen Hayes on details of missing unaccompanied minors, Pursglove said: “We have safeguarding procedures in place to ensure all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in emergency interim hotels are as safe and supported as possible, while we seek urgent placements with a local authority.

“Young people are supported by team leaders and support workers who are on site 24 hours a day. Any child going missing is extremely serious, and we work with the police and local authorities to seek to urgently locate them and ensure they are safe.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are seeing an unprecedented rise in dangerous Channel crossings. This is putting extreme pressure on our asylum system and has meant we have had no alternative but to temporarily use hotels to give children a roof over their heads while long-term accommodation is found.

“On average, unaccompanied children seeking asylum are moved to long-term care within 15 days of arriving in a hotel, but we know more needs to be done. That is why we are working closely with local authorities to increase the number of placements available.”


Mark Townsend

The GuardianTramp

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