Two hundred asylum-seeking children who were placed in hotels run by the Home Office have gone missing, a minister has admitted.
They include one girl and at least 13 children under the age of 16, the Home Office minister Simon Murray told the House of Lords on Monday.
The disclosure comes after the Observer reported that a whistleblower from a Home Office hotel in Brighton had claimed that some children had been abducted off the street outside the facility and bundled into cars.
The department was warned by police that the vulnerable occupants of the hotel – asylum-seeking children who had recently arrived in the UK, many on small boats, without parents or carers – would be targeted by criminal networks.
Answering a question from the Liberal Democrat peer Paul Scriven, Lord Murray disclosed the figures, which have been collated since July 2021. “The Home Office have no power to detain unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in these hotels and we do know that some of them go missing. Many of them that go missing are subsequently traced.”
He said 88% of the 200 children – 176 – were of Albanian origin, and he said the government hoped to phase out the use of hotels for children “as soon as we can”.
There are six Home Office hotels for unaccompanied asylum-seeker children, including the one in Brighton.
NGOs have repeatedly raised concerns over children going missing from accommodation and have offered to help the Home Office keep them safe, but the government has rejected these offers.
Philip Ishola, the chief executive of the anti-child trafficking organisation Love146, which has been warning of the risk of placing unaccompanied children in hotels since the Home Office started using them, said the Home Office rejected an offer from a group of organisations to assess a hotel in Brighton.
“This is more than a year ago and it was obvious then that there were serious concerns about the safety of young people in these hotels. Since then, the Home Office has been warned, repeatedly, that children are going missing, potentially to be trafficked and exploited, yet these concerns have been ignored,” he said.
Bella Sankey, a Labour councillor in Brighton and Hove, said: “These children must be found. We also need a full investigation to establish the full scale of political and institutional accountability for this abhorrent wrongdoing.”
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, called for mechanisms to be put in place to allow children to be looked after by local authorities.
Sussex police disclosed that they arrested two men on suspicion of human trafficking after children staying in a hotel were seen getting into their car. A spokesperson said they had not received any allegations of kidnapping.
Since the Home Office began housing asylum seekers in hotels in Brighton and Hove in July 2021, 137 unaccompanied children have been reported missing, the police spokesperson said. Of these, 60 have been located and 76 cases remain under investigation. One has been transferred to a neighbouring force, believed to be the Met.
The migration watchdog found in October that hotels being used to house unaccompanied children were using staff who had not been checked by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), as is required by government rules. Staff had access to master keys while young refugees stayed in the building.
According to a report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal, inspectors examined four hotels designated to house young people. Two of those were found to have staff living onsite who had not been cleared by the DBS.
Labour MPs and councillors from Brighton and Hove have accused the Green-led council and the Home Office of refusing to take responsibility for unaccompanied child asylum seekers.
In a further development, the children’s commissioner, Rachel de Souza, has written to Suella Braverman, the home secretary, to ask for reassurance that all protocol is followed for missing children, including by notifying authorities of serious incidents.
“I am deeply concerned by the risks facing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children placed in hotels from those determined to exploit them,” she said. “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.”
Home Office sources said it was “not true” that unaccompanied children were being kidnapped from its hotels, saying they were free to leave its accommodation.
However, a whistleblower claimed to have witnessed children being in effect trafficked from another hotel run by the Home Office, in Hythe, Kent, estimating that 10% of its young people disappeared each week.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The wellbeing of children in our care is an absolute priority. Robust safeguarding procedures are in place to ensure all children and minors in care are as safe and supported as possible as we seek urgent placements with a local authority.
“In the concerning occasion when a child goes missing, local authorities work closely with agencies, including the police, to urgently establish their whereabouts. The ICIBI in October found the young people in accommodation unanimously reported feeling safe, happy and were treated with respect.”