Sector leaders have reacted with “horror” over reports of migrant children being trafficked from a Brighton hotel run by the Home Office.
An investigation by the Observers into the scale of trafficking of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children found that dozens of under-18s have “vanished” from a Sussex hotel after being “literally picked up from outside the building” by traffickers.
More than half of the 136 children reported missing from the hotel over the past 18 months remained unaccounted for, according to the investigation, and a similar pattern of missing migrant children has emerged across the south coast.
Anne Longfield, the chair of the Commission on Young Lives, tweeted: “This should be a national emergency…79 of these children are currently missing.”
Speaking about where the responsibility lies to protect migrant children in Home Office accommodation, the former children’s commissioner for England, said: ‘It’s firmly on the Home Office’s desk.”
She added: “The reports are that local councils have been warning the Home Office that these hotels are not in safe places, that exploiter rings are already in those areas. The police say they’re waiting for guidance. The local authorities don’t have the responsibility, they say, to take on that safeguarding themselves. The Home Office says it’s the council’s job.
“The children are the ones who carry this burden…we have to make sure they get the protection because otherwise, we’re simply handing them over to the exploiters who will have them working in county lines or be sexually exploited all around this country. ”
Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society, tweeted that he is “genuinely horrified” that children have been kidnapped from hotels where they are meant to be safeguarded.
He added: “We @childrensociety warned of the risks for ages and the scale of criminal exploitation of children needs urgent action from the government.”
Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England, said: “No one at the Home Office or the DfE [Department for Education] can claim they didn’t know about the extremely serious dangers to unaccompanied children in these hotels. The missing and kidnapped children need urgently to be found and protected, the use of hotels must stop, and this serious child protection failure should also be the subject of an inquiry.”
Patricia Durr, chief executive of ECPAT UK, said the situation was described as a “scandalous” child protection failure.
“The shocking but inevitable consequence of the Home Office practice of directly accommodating unaccompanied and separated children is outside of the law,” she said. “In July 2021 it was said to be an ’emergency’ response but it continues and grows while children are missing and significantly harmed, trafficked and exploited.”
Children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, said in a statement: “I am deeply concerned by the risks facing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children placed in hotels from those determined to exploit them. We must treat them as the vulnerable children they are and support them properly from the moment they set foot on our shores.
“I have been seeking assurances that appropriate care and advocacy is made available to these young people from the point of arrival, including through visits to these hotels and intake units in Kent to understand children’s experiences.
“We cannot expect children who have faced the worst trauma to be left to look after themselves as independents – they should be given the care and protection of the state from day one, until they turn 18.
“I am writing to the Home Secretary today to ask for reassurance that all protocols are followed for missing children, including by notifying authorities of serious incidents.”
A Home Office spokesperson said that local authorities have a statutory duty to “protect all children, regardless of where they go missing from”.
He added: “In the concerning occasion when a child goes missing, they work closely with other local agencies, including the police, to urgently establish their whereabouts and ensure they are safe.”
The Home Office announced that it will be providing local authorities with £15,000 for each unaccompanied child they take into their care from a Home Office hotel to demonstrate their commitment to ending their for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
This funding program replaces the previous program announced last August which provided £6,000 per unaccompanied child moved from hotels with five working days.