Refugee aged 12 missing for a year after vanishing from UK hotel

Child is one of hundreds to go missing after being placed in hotels while their asylum cases are processed

Child migrants arriving by boat in the UK. More than 8,000 people have travelled to Britain on small boats so far this year. PA
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A lone refugee child has been missing for more than a year after disappearing, aged 12, from a UK hotel, The National can reveal.

The youngster was one of hundreds of refugee children who vanished from hotels amid fears they had been lured away by criminal gangs.

The authorities in the UK are facing heavy criticism that they are failing to protect child asylum seekers.

Housing lone refugee children in hotels was ruled unlawful in July after charity Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) took legal action against Kent County Council.

In his ruling, judge Martin Chamberlain revealed that according to data sent to the UK parliament in April 2023, 447 unaccompanied asylum seeker children had by that time gone missing from these hotels, mostly within 72 hours of arrival.

He said that they were “mostly 16 or 17-year-olds but they also include 11 children aged 15, a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old”.

Following a Freedom of Information request made by The National, the Home Office disclosed in November that 144 of the children were still missing but initially refused to reveal if the 12-year-old was among them.

Following an appeal and lengthy delay, the Home Office has now finally disclosed that the child has not been found.

The department has refused to provide an update and said “it’s government policy not to comment on individual cases”.

Patricia Durr, the chief executive of ECPAT, told The National: “The fact that children went missing and remain missing from hotels in which they were unlawfully accommodated by the Home Office is a national child protection scandal in need of independent inquiry and investigation.

“It is imperative that all efforts are made to find this child, if they remain missing and to address the risks and their need for protection and care.

“We remain very concerned about the welfare of every child who is missing and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.”

She said that ECPAT, along “with many others, raised concerns about this potential outcome from the very start when Kent County Council derogated from its duty to look after all unaccompanied children in its area”.

While the Home Office says it no longer uses hotels to house children, fears have been raised that new asylum legislation could mean under-18s being removed.

Ms Durr warned that could mean more children disappearing as they go to ground in a bid to stay in the UK.

“We are very concerned that current government policy to detain and remove children once they reach the age of 18 is leaving children more at risk and we anticipate seeing more children going missing,” she said.

It comes as Home Office figures reveal more than 20,000 asylum seekers have gone missing in the UK in the past five years.

The figures, obtained by the Daily Mail, also through Freedom of Information, shows these cases were logged on a “service to file” database because officials did not know where they were and had no way of contacting them.

More than 8,000 people have arrived in Britain so far this year on small boats, with many fleeing war or famine and travelling through Europe to the UK.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made “stopping the boats” one of his main political pledges and has been attempting to get a controversial plan to send failed asylum seekers to Rwanda up and running.

A delayed report published into the use of hotels to house refugee children was finally published in March.

Traffickers reportedly targeted the hotels where children are placed and made false promises of lucrative employment or education.

There have been cases of gangs threatening family members back home or keeping children accountable for family debt.

People-trafficking gangs used mobile phone trackers to find refugee children staying in British hotels and lure them away, with some even abducted at knifepoint, The National has been told.

The accommodation of lone refugee children in hotels formed part of a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into human trafficking.

In its report, the cross-party committee of MPs says the government “needs to show greater urgency in securing more appropriate accommodation that is suitable for the needs of children, notwithstanding the need to keep families together”.

Every child who goes missing from home or care should be considered as a potential victim of trafficking, it said.

The committee has told the Home Office to update members “with its progress in finding these children by the end of this year, and we expect to receive regular updates thereafter until the problem is resolved”.

Its report details how it heard evidence that unaccompanied asylum seeker children as young as 10 had been “placed in these hotels with no access to legal or mental health support”.

The Home Office said in a statement that when unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) go missing “a multi-agency missing persons protocol is mobilised to establish their whereabouts and ensure they are safe”.

The department says it has worked closely with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and National Crime Agency to set out countrywide guidance and best practice on missing UASC investigations, which has been shared with police forces across the UK.

An Asylum Safeguarding Hub continues to monitor and review the cases where a child remains missing from a Home Office operated UASC Hotel, liaising with statutory partners to share new information as it comes to light.

Updated: May 08, 2024, 5:50 AM