Thousands of lone migrant children living in UK hotels, says watchdog

UK government told more than a year ago it was breaking the law by using hotels to house unaccompanied minors

A young boy thought to be a migrant arrives in Dungeness, Kent, after being rescued in the Channel. PA
Powered by automated translation

A watchdog has said that the British Home Office is effectively running “unregistered children’s homes” after figures revealed thousands of lone migrant children have been living in hotels after arriving in the UK.

The government department has been given until the end of the year to come up with a plan to stop using hotels to house migrants after the chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal, found “limited evidence of progress on a concrete exit strategy” from the policy.

The government recently admitted 3,256 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children — known as UASCs — had arrived in hotels since the start of October last year. Almost 900 were under the age of 16, provisional data suggest.

The total figure is likely to be higher, as the information provided does not include those already placed in hotels before that period.

The information, published in response to a parliamentary question and taken from a routinely updated “live operational database”, said lone migrant children spent an average of 16 days in the hotels, which are in Kent, Brighton and Hove, East Sussex and Warwickshire council areas.

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration report said the Home Office is “effectively operating unregistered young people’s homes” and the conditions were not a “long-term answer”.

“The position the Home Office finds itself in, running unregistered children’s homes, is one that staff and stakeholders alike have found uncomfortable. This is clearly not a space the Home Office wants or should be operating in,” Mr Neil added.

The report said it is “most notable” that neither the Home Office nor councils where hotels are located “hold statutory responsibility for these young people”.

Migrant children rescued in French waters — in pictures

An entry to a “risk register”, published in the report, said the government was informed it was breaking the law more than a year ago.

The entry, dated August 2021, said: “[A senior civil servant] confirmed we are running [children's homes] and committing a criminal offence but relying on the defence of necessity. The mitigation is to stop doing this … Advice is going to ministers.”

In another entry, the Home Office stated there was a risk the plan to end the use of hotels to house lone child migrants “may not achieve the outcome in time for intake surges in spring”.

Under a heading of “implications”, it said: “Continued legal and statutory [responsibility] that LA [local authority] may not take back and HO continues to run UASC hotels without any [statutory] responsibility … 9th Sept, we will be breaking the law and [continuing] to run unregulated children’s homes and continuing to expose [the Home Office] to illegal activity, burnout and trauma.”

Children told inspectors they were happy and felt safe in the hotels, but the majority were “very keen to move on and start their education”.

“Staff across the hotels told inspectors that the young people persistently asked when they would be moved on from the hotel, and that this was a source of ongoing anxiety,” the report added.

Another area of “significant concern” raised in the report were two cases of staff residing at the hotels who had not been vetted by the Disclosure and Barring Service.

The Refugee Council expressed alarm over the findings and called for an immediate end to the use of hotels to accommodate children.

The charity’s chief executive Enver Solomon said the government was “clearly failing in its duty to safeguard children and it has no proper long-term plan for improving its operations and how it deals with unaccompanied children”.

“Every effort must be made by government to ensure all children are taken into the care of local authorities as a matter of urgency.”

Children among 1,000 migrants arriving in UK on single day — in pictures

Among four recommendations, Mr Neal told the Home Office they must “develop and begin delivering a viable and sustainable exit strategy from the use of hotels” within six months.

The report, published on Wednesday, was sent to then-home secretary Priti Patel on June 9 and should have been made public by August 4.

“We accept the recommendation and will continue to work closely with the Department for Education and Local Authorities to build capacity to avoid the ongoing need for contingency accommodation as quickly as possible,” said the Home Office.

The department is “committed to ensuring the safety of all young people within the hotels” and all adults working directly with the child migrants have been subject to enhanced checks, with those working on the hotel sites having DBS clearance, it said.

“The well-being of children in our care is our absolute priority,” added a government spokeswoman.

“The rise in dangerous small boats crossings means there are significant challenges on local authority care places.

“The government has had no alternative but to urgently use temporary hotels to give unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK a roof over their heads.

“We know we must do more and we are determined to stop the use of hotels for children.

“To do this, we are working round the clock with councils across the UK to increase the number of long-term care placements available.”

Updated: October 19, 2022, 10:23 PM