UK charities urge Rishi Sunak to act on 'missing' child refugees

More than 100 UK charities describe situation as 'child protection scandal'

Migrants are taken to Dover, Kent, by a Border Force vessel from a small boat on the English Channel. PA
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More than 100 leading charities have signed a letter to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak calling for an independent inquiry into how more than 200 asylum-seeking children have gone “missing” from Home Office hotels

Calling the situation “a child-protection scandal”, the charities warned that the children, many of whom had been living in southern seaside towns, were at risk of exploitation.

They urged Mr Sunak to end the practice of housing young refugees who have been separated from their families in Home Office hotels, and instead place them with specialist local authorities who can protect them.

Co-ordinated by Ecpat UK and the Refugee Council, the open letter has been signed by charities including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s, Action for Children, Coram, the Children’s Society and the National Children’s Bureau.

The letter condemns the government’s “reported failure to protect vulnerable children from harm”, and highlights how housing young refugees in hotels was intended to be only a short-term, emergency option.

“There is no legal basis for placing children in Home Office hotel accommodation, and almost two years into the operation of the scheme — which is both unlawful and harmful — it is no longer possible to justify the use of hotels as being ‘temporary’," the letter says.

“It is a significant departure from the Children Act 1989 and established standards.”

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The charities said that the Home Office had “repeatedly failed” to commit to an end date for the scheme.

“We know from our work that children who have experienced unimaginable horror and upheaval coming to our country in search of safety are highly traumatised and vulnerable," said Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council.

“The government has a very clear legal duty to protect them but is failing to do so, with the equivalent of several classrooms of children seemingly having disappeared into the clutches of those who will exploit and abuse them.

“This is a child-protection scandal that councils, the police and ministers must urgently address to ensure every single separated child matters and is kept safe.”

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Patricia Durr, chief executive of Ecpat UK, called for “an urgent commitment to end this practice immediately”.

“Despite evidence of the risks and numerous representations, the government has ignored the warnings and is yet to commit to an exit strategy, seeming to prefer to entrench this discriminatory approach to some of the most vulnerable children with the greatest need of protection and care," Ms Durr said.

“We need an urgent commitment to end this practice immediately and to ensure that separated children are as cared for and protected as all other children within our legal and well-established child welfare framework.

“Rather than setting up separate provision, the government must provide local authorities with sufficient funds to properly fulfil their legal duties to children.”

Conservative frontbencher Lord Simon Murray of Blidworth said on Tuesday that 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children remained missing after initially being kept in hotels since July 2021.

He said that 88 per cent, or 176, were Albanian nationals.

Updated: January 26, 2023, 9:19 AM