The revelation that 222 children have gone missing from hotels in which they were placed under a scheme for unaccompanied young asylum seekers should shame the government and, above all, the Home Office. The risks to young people who are invisible to the authorities are well-known, and include exploitation by criminal gangs. Even if some of these teenagers find a way to get by in the short term, perhaps with the aid of friends or relatives, they run the risk of being ejected from the UK in future if they disappear underground before their asylum claims are processed.
Ministers have provided information on just over half of the missing children. Thirty-nine have been missing for at least 100 days, and 17 were lost within a day of the Home Office taking responsibility for them. Disgracefully, there is little sign that police or local authorities are even looking for them. The figures were only made public in response to a question from the shadow children’s minister, Helen Hayes. Almost all are boys and many are aged 16 or 17. Some younger children have also gone.
The shocking failure to keep track of young people in the system is not the only thing wrong with the hotel arrangements. An inspection report earlier this month revealed that some employees had undergone no criminal record checks. In one case, three unvetted members of staff with access to master keys were living in a hotel’s basement. While the Home Office has accepted a recommendation that this should not be allowed, the fact that it happened at all casts doubt on the government’s commitment to child protection. No one doubts that unaccompanied minors arriving in the UK for the first time are vulnerable – and those placed in hotels include younger teenagers. In the year to September, 899 children aged 14 or 15 were placed in hotels rather than foster homes or other local authority care settings.
There is no point pretending that suitable homes for newly arrived adolescents are easy to find. The rising number of teenagers arriving on small boats is challenging for councils already struggling with high demand for children’s services – and chronic workforce instability and shortages. But combined with whistleblowers’ recent descriptions of chaos and squalor at Kent’s Manston airbase, where new arrivals are processed, the disappearance of more than 200 young people gives an impression of incompetence and neglect.
At least Suella Braverman’s short reign at the Home Office is over. The new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, should reconsider his support for the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda – and put a lid on relentlessly hostile rhetoric. If Rwanda was meant to function as a deterrent, the evidence of recent months is that it has failed. The UK needs a completely new approach to asylum and immigration, which recognises the contribution made by migrants – both in the past and the future – and communicates with the public about this. If ministers want to deter Channel crossings they should develop alternatives, working closely with France, the EU and other governments.
They must also admit that the worst of all worlds is one in which newly arrived children go missing, because the system they have built is incapable of holding on to them. It is scandalous that the UK Home Office has lost 222 young people and there can be no excuse or justification.
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