The latest reports of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children disappearing from English seaside resorts are spine-chilling. While it has been known for some time that young people have gone missing after being placed in hotels by the Home Office, the evidence, from a whistleblower, of children being picked up and driven away is deeply shocking.
Last year, the heads of more than 25 organisations, including Barnardo’s, Coram and the National Children’s Bureau, responded to figures showing 1,606 children in England had been placed in such accommodation over the previous 12 months. They described the policy as amounting to “negligence in corporate parenting duties” and “void of respect for children’s rights”. This is because it is an exemption from the duty to provide care to children. Just how risky this is can be seen from the number of missing children, which stands at 200, the Home Office minister Simon Murray told the House of Lords on Monday. In May last year, two men were arrested for human trafficking offences after police stopped their car containing three asylum-seeking children.
The vulnerability of some young people in care to criminal exploitation is understood clearly by experts, and by members of the public who followed the inquiries into Rochdale and other grooming rings. While teenage girls are most often targeted for sexual abuse, boys are recruited as drugs couriers by county lines traffickers. In 2019, gang members were convicted of modern slavery offences after using three children to deal drugs.
In defiance of this body of knowledge, in 2021 the then education secretary, Gavin Williamson, gave permission for unaccompanied child asylum seekers to be lodged in hotels. This was described as a short-term fix. But as small-boat arrivals increased, so did the number of children – mostly boys – dealt with in this way.
Pressure on the government must now be increased until the hotels policy is ditched. It is appalling, if not surprising given the government’s broader approach to asylum, that it has continued for as long as it has. The right of children to be looked after must be reasserted – and councils properly resourced to carry it out. At the moment ministers are presiding over a dangerous jigsaw, where responsibility is shared between the Home Office, local authorities and the police. The result is that extremely vulnerable young people are falling through the cracks, very possibly into a criminal underworld that is difficult to escape.
The general expansion of unregulated accommodation for 16- and 17-year-olds must not be used as an excuse. Last year, the charity Article 39 failed to convince the high court that treating this group differently from other teenagers was illegal. But the policy is wrong, and civil society has a vital role to play in standing up for children who lack other advocates. If ministers want to undermine traffickers, as they have repeatedly said, they must come up with a strategy to end the disappearances, and commit to replacing illegal migration routes with safe and legal ones.
Providing group homes for unaccompanied asylum seekers is not the job of the Home Office or its outsourcing partners. Block-booking hotels was the wrong way to take the pressure off overwhelmed councils. An immigration system that loses children has failed the most basic test.