On the first day of April, 17-year-old Wassim Hamam* disappeared near the bustling centre of Hove. He was never seen again. Days later another teenager, Burim Markaj, 16, vanished nearby. Within hours, a 15-year-old was also reported missing.
The disappearances continued. Four days later Alban Berisha, a 17-year-old whose portrait suggests a pensive, wary character, suddenly vanished from the streets of the Sussex coastal city. The same day, a 5ft 5in 17-year-old, Khalid Muha, was last seen wearing a black bomber jacket and white trainers.
Another child went, then another. Detectives investigating the disappearances quickly identified two facts linking the lengthening caseload: all were unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. And all disappeared after staying at the same hotel. But this was no ordinary seaside hotel. The children were staying in a residence run by the Home Office, the government department whose mandate is keeping people safe.
Yet an Observer investigation reveals that months before Hamam vanished, the Home Office was warned by police that the vulnerable occupants of the hotel – which is not being named for security reasons – would be targeted by criminal networks.
Sources, privy to police and Home Office briefings into the hotel’s missing children, claim such warnings were ignored. Instead, they describe children being abducted off the street outside the hotels and bundled into cars. “Children are literally being picked up from outside the building, disappearing and not being found,” said a child protection source.
Security guards subcontracted to the Home Office at the hotel corroborate such crimes. A whistleblower, who works for outsourcing firm Mitie, described witnessing criminal gangs loitering outside and children being effectively abducted.
“Most of the children disappear into county lines,” he said, referring to the predatory gangs who run drugs from a city to other parts of the country. “The Albanian and Eritrean gangs pick them up in their BMWs and Audis and then they just vanish.”
The security guard chose to speak out because of his helplessness at watching undocumented children disappearing into the criminal underworld. “We can’t run around the area, checking to see who’s where. We can’t arrest the children, we can’t detain them.”
The whistleblower revealed he had repeatedly told the Home Office about his mounting disquiet but to little apparent effect. “We’ve raised the issue many times, but nothing much has changed,” he said.
Concerns were also aired during multi-agency meetings held in Brighton and Hove every fortnight, with Home Office officials present. Sources who attended the briefings said police raised concerns about criminal elements preying on unaccompanied children for at least a year. Home Office officials even gave updates on the missing children, added the source.
“They [the Home Office] have been aware of this right from the start. They’re running the hotels; their staff are actually reporting the children missing.”
The Home Office on Saturday told the Observer that “robust safeguarding procedures ensure all children in our care are as safe and supported as possible”.
Sources added that criminals had been quick to exploit the Home Office’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Africa as a recruiting tool. “Traffickers tell them they’ll be sent to Rwanda if they stay in the hotel.”
Cases of missing children began escalating during April, the disappearance of Hamam setting in chain a catalogue of incidents that continues to grow. In August alone, 40 teenagers went missing from the hotel.
Around 600 unaccompanied children are known to have passed through the hotel in the past 18 months, with 136 reported missing. More than half (79) remain unaccounted for.
The child protection source says some of the children may have been trafficked as far away as Manchester and north to Scotland. One case is under investigation by the Metropolitan police in London. Some will be safe, however, having absconded to reunite with friends or even family. The proportion of those taken by criminal elements is difficult to quantify.
The month after Hamam and the others went missing, Sussex police arrested two men on suspicion of intent to commit human trafficking after their car was intercepted on the M25. Three children were rescued and returned to the Home Office.
Others are believed to have been trafficked locally. In August, officers found two teenagers 800 metres from the hotel at a property that was linked to criminals and “previously associated with cannabis cultivation”. The children were arrested and returned to the Home Office.
Yet insiders say not enough is done to find the disappeared children. A Brighton councillor described the response as child neglect on an “industrial scale”.
Fifty miles along the south coast in Kent, Abdul admits to having no idea where his friends went. Shivering in sandals as the wind whips over the promenade at Hythe, the 17-year-old Eritrean motions to move further from the guards outside the hotel that holds another 60 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children like him.
“Some men took them, I don’t know where they’ve gone, but their phones are off. They picked them up over there,” he said, nodding towards a quiet terraced road.
The whistleblower, who also worked at the Hythe hotel, estimates 10% of its children disappeared each week. The numbers of unaccompanied asylum seeking children missing from the county alone is huge. In hotels also run by the Home Office, previously unpublished figures show 282 disappeared in the six months from April. Seventy remained missing.
The issue extends further afield. In Yorkshire, proliferating reports of asylum seekers missing from hotels and becoming “potential victims of modern slavery” saw the region’s organised crime unit intervene. Unwilling to name gangs and networks for legal reasons, the Yorkshire and Humber regional organised crime unit confirms an “element of organised criminality” and the rescue of exploited asylum seekers.
Back in Brighton and Hove, sources question the suitability of the hotel’s location. County lines networks are known to operate nearby. The Observer has spoken to members whose hangout is 300 metres from the hotel.
Worse still, the child protection source privy to Home Office briefings admits it was common knowledge that the location in Hove carried risks. “It’s acknowledged that it was a hotspot for exploitation.”
It is a complacent approach perhaps underlined by the Home Office’s separate decision to involve a company linked to one of the UK’s most notorious slum landlords to help house the children. According to the Land Registry, the freehold of the Hove hotel is owned by a company that involves family members of the infamous Nicholas van Hoogstraten.
Albanian youngsters are particularly vulnerable. Based on its field research, ECPAT UK says the speed with which they disappear can be shocking, sometimes within a day of arriving at a hotel. To explain the disappearances, experts start with the summer of 2021 when Kent announced it could not cope with an influx of unaccompanied children arriving by small boat. Few, though, anticipated the Home Office’s response.
Leaning on longstanding child protection norms, local authorities normally looked after such vulnerable children. Instead, the Home Office took effective ownership, placing kids in everyday hotels, essentially converting them overnight into unregistered children’s homes.
Eighteen months on, the legal protections for the children remain ambiguous with it unclear if the Home Office or councils have statutory responsibility. Yet, when pressed by the Observer, the Home Office appeared unequivocal. “Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect all children, regardless of where they go missing from,” it said.
For its part, Brighton and Hove city council admitted it was troubled by the situation. “For many months now we have been raising with government our concerns about the Home Office’s use of hotels to accommodate asylum-seeking children,” said a statement.
Safeguarding specialists warned from the start that placing unaccompanied children in hotels would render them at risk of sexual abuse, kidnapping or exploitation by gangs.
Elaine Ortiz, founder of the Hummingbird Project, which is allowed rare access to the Brighton and Hove hotel, said: “People prey outside children’s homes. I used to work with kids in care and people would hang about children’s homes where they knew young girls were. It’s a known tactic.”
The Home Office knew its approach was flawed. Its internal risk register, dated 18 August 2021, reveals senior civil servants admitting that it was illegal that “we are running children’s homes”. Five months earlier, ministers had banned vulnerable minors from being placed in unregulated children’s homes.
Questions also remain over the policing response. The Mitie whistleblower said that from his experience hardly any child who disappeared was recovered and returned. He alleges police investigations were cursory, at best. “We call them [the police], they turn up, look about, make some notes. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
The child protection expert in Hove alleges that police investigations once a child is spirited out of Sussex can be poorly coordinated between forces. “When children were presenting in Manchester, Scotland or wherever, the criminal investigation was not being linked up, dots weren’t being joined.
“It was clear that children were being trafficked, but there wasn’t the sophisticated, intensive investigation you might suspect. It would not have happened had a British kid been involved. With Albanians in particular, there was an acceptance they get trafficked.”
Another child protection source who works closely with the police on trafficked children claimed an undeclared two-tier response is effectively in operation.
They said that when the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) drew up interim advice for forces on how to respond when adult and child asylum seekers went missing, the advice suggested treating them as immigration absconders unless there was suspicious or concerning circumstances. After internal consideration, children were removed from the advice. This, however, has meant that guidance for missing migrant youngsters is still being developed.
Other concerns exist. “Many forces still take a less than enthusiastic approach in children’s cases. There’s a lot of disbelief by police when these children go missing; the perception is they’ve gone deliberately to avoid immigration enforcement,” said the source.
Official guidance is for missing asylum-seeking children to be treated as if missing from care. The issue, say experts, is that the children placed in hotels have never actually been in care. “They don’t have any legal status because they are not recognised as being looked after by any local authority,” said the source.
Sussex police says it conducts each investigation “impartially and without prejudice”, saying missing unaccompanied children are given the same resources and determination as other cases, with particular emphasis given to ascertain “if they are vulnerable or could have been a victim”. All available lines of inquiry, including with other forces, are exhausted, said a spokesperson.
The NPCC’s lead for missing persons, deputy chief constable Catherine Hankinson, added: “Any child who goes missing is a huge concern for policing and all avenues are pursued to find and safeguard them.”
Almost 300 days have passed since Hamam disappeared. Hope is fading that the teenager, along with scores of others, will ever be found. In some investigations, leads have dried up. Cases are “filed” unsolved. Internal NPCC documents underline the pressures facing police. “The first 72 hours following the initial encounter with a migrant child is critical to significantly reduce the influence of the traffickers on the child and to reduce the risk of them being re-trafficked.”
Pressure, meanwhile, mounts for the Home Office to abandon its hotel policy. No obvious exit strategy is apparent, though the department on Saturday stated that ending their use was “an absolute priority”.
Instead, the numbers of unaccompanied children placed in hotels continues to grow. New unpublished data reveals that in April 198 were placed in hotels, a monthly total that in November had more than doubled to 487. Tensions, too, are rising in Brighton and Hove. Local Labour councillor Bella Sankey describes the tally of disappeared as “an unprecedented child safeguarding catastrophe”.
Patricia Durr, chief executive of ECPAT UK, accuses the Home Office of “continuing to operate outside of the law”. Elsewhere, the whistleblower is contemplating resigning. “It’s too hard. One day you see their faces, smiling and happy. Then they’re gone, but you never forget them.”
* Names of children have been changed for safeguarding reasons