More than 175 children seeking asylum, who have gone missing from Home Office-run hotels on the South Coast of England, are still unaccounted for, NationalWorld can reveal.
Charities have called for an end to the use of hotels to accommodate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, over concerns about safeguarding following reports that a number of children have been kidnapped from a Brighton hotel in recent months. The Home Office has said there is no evidence to suggest missing children have been kidnapped.
Children from Albania, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Egypt are among those still missing, according to the Home Office, with more than a dozen thought to be under-16.
‘A child protection scandal’
Kent Police are looking for 61 children who’ve gone missing from two hotels since July 2021. In total, 160 unaccompanied children have been reported missing during that period, with enquiries by specialist officers within the force’s Missing and Child Exploitation Teams resulting in 97 of these being located. Two cases have been transferred to other force areas.
In Sussex, where there are a further two Home Office-run hotels being used to house unaccompanied children, police say there have been 224 missing person incidents, with 109 resolved and the remaining 114 still under investigation. One case is understood to have been transferred to a neighbouring force.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick confirmed earlier this week that there have been 4,600 unaccompanied children seeking asylum housed in hotels since July 2021. During that time, there have been 440 missing episodes - some relating to the same child more than once - with 200 children still missing.
Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon said: “We know from our work that children who have experienced unimaginable horror and upheaval coming to our country in search of safety are highly traumatised and vulnerable. Government has a very clear legal duty to protect them but is failing to do so with the equivalent of several classrooms of children seemingly having disappeared into the clutches of those who will exploit and abuse them.
“This is a child protection scandal that councils, the police and ministers must urgently address to ensure every single separated child matters and is kept safe.”
The Home Office has previously stated that five hotels are used to house unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. NationalWorld understands that four of these are in Kent and Sussex.
Missing children are a ‘serious concern’
Experts told NationalWorld that many asylum-seeking children who disappear are likely to have been trafficked by gangs. Philippa Southwell, managing director at Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Experts, said that trafficking was a “legitimate” concern. She said that many of the children she had worked with over the past several years had gone missing from Home Office hotels, local authority accommodation, or foster care placements - with the majority of those who resurface having been trafficked.
“It’s common that they’re already in debt bondage,” the human trafficking lawyer explained. “So, these children have been trafficked before - and they go back to their traffickers because there are threats to their families who owe money back home. Children end up returning to exploitative cycles because they fear what will happen to their loved ones.”
A Kent County Council (KCC) spokesperson said: “Any child or young person missing from our care or the care of their parents or others in Kent is a serious concern to this Council.
“We work closely with Kent Police, the Home Office, Non-Governmental Organisations and our carers to reduce the risk of them going permanently missing and keep them safe whilst they are living in Kent.
“KCC is held accountable for the care of all its own looked after children by the Department for Education and Ofsted but the overall responsibility for ensuring that the response to children who go missing is appropriate and effective is a multi-agency one . For children and young people not in the care of this local authority, multi agency strategy meetings are held when any are missing children, to plan an effective and appropriate response. The responsibility for taking steps to find and return all missing people including children sits with the Police.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The wellbeing of children and minors in our care is an absolute priority. Robust safeguarding procedures are in place to ensure all children and minors are safe and supported as we seek urgent placements with a local authority.
“Any child or minor going missing is extremely serious, and we work around the clock with the police and local authorities to urgently locate them and ensure they are safe. We are determined to stop the use of hotels for all minors. To achieve this goal, we are providing local authorities with £15,000 for every unaccompanied child they take into their care.”
An earlier version of this story stated that more than 180 unaccompanied asylum seeking children were currently missing from hotels on the South Coast - this has been amended after Kent Police issued a correction to NationalWorld, the original figure included unaccompanied asylum seeking children from all settings on the South Coast.