Children seeking asylum in the UK were threatened and subjected to racist abuse by staff at a Home Office-run hotel, a whistleblower has claimed as pressure grows on the government to act over the growing crisis in the system.
The source, who worked in the Brighton hotel for more than a year, said that in such an environment of “emotional abuse”, scores of children, who had arrived in the UK without parents or a carer, were driven on to the streets and into the hands of criminals.
An Observer investigation last week that revealed dozens of young people have been kidnapped by gangs from the same hotel, prompting calls for such places to be closed and for a public inquiry.
Child protection sources and a whistleblower working for a Home Office contractor described how youngsters were abducted from the street outside the hotel and bundled into cars. More than 200 children are missing after vanishing from hotels managed by the Home Office.
Another whistleblower has now come forward, claiming that some children in the Brighton hotel were also threatened that their asylum claims would be harmed if they “misbehaved” while others were punished by being detained – illegally – in the hotel for days.
The allegations of violent threats to youngsters – many of whom fled persecution in their home countries and are profoundly traumatised – will add to mounting pressure on Rishi Sunak to intervene and stop the Home Office’s “unlawful” use of hotels for unaccompanied children.
The whistleblower, speaking out after accusing Home Office officials of ignoring his concerns, told the Observer: “I heard staff threatening to throw children out of the window and joking about them going missing.”
He added that when instances of inappropriate staff behaviour were reported, no apparent action was taken by the hotel, one of seven run by the Home Office to look after lone children who were seeking asylum.
“There was a lot of xenophobic stuff, like: ‘Fuck off back to your country.’ Somebody heard one senior staff member calling a child a ‘fucking terrorist’.”
The whistleblower added that staff regularly talked about children being abducted from nearby streets and that the targeting of youngsters was common knowledge.
“We heard things about boys being taken, that this boy got taken by a car, things like that. They went missing. The hotel was unsafe. Everybody knew this was a place of vulnerable asylum seekers, so it became a target.”
Sussex police are investigating a potential trafficking case after three children got into a car outside the Brighton hotel. The car was then driven towards London before police intercepted it. Home Office sources say they have no evidence of children being kidnapped.
The whistleblower added that most children in the hotel appeared to be at high risk of exploitation, with the majority owing money to and in contact with the traffickers and smugglers who arranged their small boat crossing from France.
“A lot owed money to the agencies who got them out of Calais. They have to pay that money off as soon as possible. Their trafficker will have someone who can, for example, get them work in London.”
Since last week’s Observer investigation, pressure has mounted on the government to stop its “dereliction of duty” and adequately safeguard the children. Last week, more than 100 charities demanded that Sunak act to stop the Home Office placing vulnerable youngsters in hotels, which it had no legal basis for doing.
A total of 76 child asylum seekers are missing from the Brighton hotel, with a further 70 unaccounted for from Home Office-run hotels in neighbouring Kent.
Patricia Durr, chief executive of children’s rights organisation Ecpat UK, said the revelations from the whistleblower pointed to a “scandalous and growing child protection failure”.
It was shocking, she added, that a number of the 4,600 unaccompanied children who have passed through Home Office hotels may have encountered staff who, instead of looking after them, “threatened and treated them like they are worthless”.
The group joined calls for a public inquiry to prevent similar mistakes.
The whistleblower added that the quality of food the children were given in the hotel was dire enough for them to want to leave. Produce was frequently out of date, with some ready meals dated March 2021 – four months before the Brighton hotel began accommodating unaccompanied children.
Another factor driving children from the site were “safety plans” designed to keep youngsters from absconding, but which have the opposite effect. Children under a safety plan – those judged to be at most risk of being trafficked – were checked by staff every hour to make sure they were in their room. “But it meant they couldn’t sleep: it was like torture,” said the whistleblower. “A significant proportion of these kids left because they couldn’t sleep.”
In addition, said the whistleblower, although it was illegal, some staff arbitrarily detained children inside. “They said: ‘You were out yesterday, so you can’t go out today.’ They let them think they’re not allowed out.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have not received any complaints in relation to these claims. The wellbeing of children in our care is an absolute priority. Robust safeguards are in place to ensure they are safe and supported as we seek urgent placements with a local authority. When issues do arise, we take complaints extremely seriously and they are acted upon quickly.
“In October, the independent immigration watchdog found young people in hotel accommodation unanimously reported feeling safe, happy and treated with respect.”