The Story of the UK’s Missing Asylum Children Scandal

Photo by Collin on Unsplash

by Aiden Cameron

In May of last year, two men were stopped and arrested along the M25 for the attempted abduction of three children outside a Brighton hotel, which was ran by the Home Office to provide refuge to asylum-seeking children. A motorway traffic jam enabled police, who had been tipped off about the incident, to stop the vehicle without issues and rescue the children who had been taken.

Disaster was averted on that day, but it appears this incident was no exception when it comes to Home Office hotels. Indeed, the attempted kidnapping has only came to light as a major story recently, following a January 2023 investigation in the Observer which claimed dozens of asylum-seeking children had been kidnapped from the Brighton hotel. The report, which invoked a whistleblower from Mite (the Home Office’s security contractor), claimed that around 600 children had passed through the hotel in the 18 months prior, with 136 reported missing and 79 remaining unaccounted for. Additionally, the whistleblower described witnessing similar abductions from an equivalent hotel in Kent, estimating 10% of its youngsters disappeared each week; and that this was all occurring in spite of the Home Office being repeatedly warned these vulnerable children could be targeted by criminal gangs.

The report also raised a noticeable issue regarding who is responsible for these children’s welfare – when queried, Sussex police referred concerns around the issue to the Home Office, but the Home Office in turn claimed it was the responsibility of local authorities such as the police. The fallout of the report went viral and saw the issue being addressed almost immediately after at the parliamentary level. Firstly, in the House of Lords, Conservative Simon Murray, the Minister of State at the Home Office, was queried on January 23rd. Though expressing skepticism over the statistics outlined in the Observer, he nonetheless highlighted statistics which stated that, of 4,600 children who had been accommodated in Home Office hotels since they were opened in July 2021, there have been 440 missing “episodes” and 200 children remain missing.

This led to the issue being raised in the House of Commons the following day, with Green MP Caroline Lucas referring to the report in an urgent question addressed to Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, who subsequently faced a range of questions on the matter. Jenrick backed up the statistics provided by Lord Murray but was insistent on the point of authorities lacking the power to stop children leaving the hotels, and did not seem to posit much in terms of improvements made in response to the shocking revelations. Instead, he along with Conservative colleagues seemed focus on the issue of reducing the number of small boat crossings, which though an important topic does not address how children currently staying in the UK are being treated. During the course of the discussion, Jenrick also pushed support for the ongoing Illegal Migration Bill and even the government’s Rwanda scheme, which was highly controversial when proposed. Several Conservative MPs raised the issue of skepticism over the age of asylum seekers– again, this seemed unhelpful when discussing how to deal with children’s welfare, and only subverted their own responsibility on the matter.

The issue of safeguards for the children in question was repeatedly raised, but Jenrick’s responses did not go far into specifics on the matter, and he did not outline a clear plan for phasing out use of these hotels. Jenrick did describe how extra funding was going to be provided to local authorities, with an increased £15,000 one-off payment to local authorities for accepting a child from these hotels into their system. Though a positive step, this suggests the issue is primarily an economic one, and can be dealt with via policy proposals that were largely not forthcoming.

A clip from Labour MP for Hove, Peter Kyle, speaking at the debate went viral online. In it, Kyle claimed that Hove authorities were given just a few hours’ notice refugee children were going to be placed there, and the facilities there were far from specialist, a point backed up by a number of opposition MPs. He highlighted the May 2022 incident as an example of how these vulnerable children, some of whom he had visited, were at risk of being coerced into organised crime. The following days saw protests in Brighton involving a range of campaign groups, demanding better safeguards for these children and a halt to them being kept in such hotels. However, direct policy action on the matter has still to be observed.

76 asylum-seeking children have gone missing from Home Office accommodation MP announces

Daily Mail

The issue has certainly not left the news cycle though, with another Observer report in February claiming the missing children were being put to work for Manchester gangs. Cheetham Hill, a criminal hotspot in the Greater Manchester Police area, is known to contain over 30 gangs and it is here many youngsters are suspected to have been trafficked to, with Sussex Police having tracked down two missing children in the area. It is not just children that are the victim of human slavery, either – men from conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Iran have been identified as exploited by criminal gangs in the area. Worryingly, many when offered help rejected it, apparently unaware they were being exploited by criminal gangs – this concern is only likely to be more prevalent for victimised children. The report also describes how children abducted from the Sussex hotels but then tracked down were found across 18 other police force areas, including Scotland, North Wales and Ireland. The trafficking from Sussex to Cheetham Hill is one example of a trafficking route – another comes between Kent and London, with 46 missing children from Kent located in London.

Operation Vulcan was launched by police at the start of this year to crack down on crime in the Cheetham hill area, and has proved to be a success, with a significantly reduced visible presence of organised crime operating on the streets of the area. However, a consequence of this is that exploited children, some of whom are expected to come from the Home Office hotels in question, have also disappeared from public view. Identifying them should be a priority for the police if they wish to deal with the human consequences of organised crime.

The May 2022 incident, for which investigations are ongoing, may provide the first trafficking charges involving children from a Home Office hotel. However, all that has happened since highlights that they should certainly not be the last, and changes to the current system are urgently needed to stop this worrying pattern from continuing.