Inside the battle to save the child asylum seekers taken from UK migrant hotels

Police cannot account for 76 minors taken in Brighton among hundreds kidnapped and exploited

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After campaigning for months, Sasha Haddad gathered with friends under Brighton’s seafront clock tower last week and realised her fight for the city’s missing migrant children was gaining support.

Candles flickered in the breeze at the impromptu vigil of hundreds who were demanding the return of young unaccompanied asylum seekers missing for months.

Hotels in the seaside city are being used to house vulnerable young asylum seekers after their perilous journeys to the UK.

But far from being places of sanctuary, the venues have become a target for gangs attempting to lure the children into the UK’s criminal underworld.

From only one of Brighton’s hotels, more than 200 children — some as young as 11 — have gone missing. Police have told The National that 76 from that hotel alone are still unaccounted for after searches, while nationally the figure stands at more than 440.

Ms Haddad, who is part of the city’s newly formed Homes Not Hotels campaign group, made an embattled plea to the crowd that Brighton is a community that protects its children.

“People were crying,” she told The National. “It was very emotional. We are still in disbelief that such a travesty could happen here.

“There is a lot of anger and sadness; the protest highlighted the joint sense of anguish felt by the community over what is happening. We had a candlelit vigil and held a minute's silence for all the missing youngsters.”

Sasha Haddad at a protest in Brighton highlighting the issue of missing child migrants. Photo: Sasha Haddad

Hundreds in the community of Brighton have been protesting over the government's continuing policy of housing children in hotels.

“The protest saw people with no connection to their plights coming to show how appalled they were that this could be allowed to happen,” Ms Haddad said.

“Everyone was united in solidarity to make sure this does not happen again. It needs to stop.”

Campaigners say asylum hotels are ‘no place’ for children

British authorities are facing heavy criticism that they are failing to protect child asylum seekers. Director of Brighton-based Sussex Interpreting Services, Arran Evans, has been campaigning on behalf of the children.

“Asylum hotels are no place for any child,” he said.

“Some children in Brighton and Hove have been living in a hotel funded by the Home Office for more than a year. We hear from doctors and teachers that they are simply not thriving: Their physical and mental health is suffering.

“One missing child is one too many.”

England's former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said youths are being “kidnapped and exploited” by criminal networks across the country.

“No one should rest until these kids get the protection they need,” she said.

The Home Office has been using six hotels in the UK to house unaccompanied children who have been rescued from small boats in the English Channel.

One in 10 children have gone missing

Since July 2021, 4,600 child migrants have been placed in hotels.

Daniel Sohege, director of refugee protection charity Stand For All, told The National criminal gangs are taking them and trafficking them across the UK.

Officials in Manchester reported finding children in the area acting as spotters for counterfeiting and drug gangs.

“We wrote to the Home Secretary over a year ago to express our concerns that children were going missing and being trafficked and exploited and this was not being picked up by the authorities,” Mr Sohege said.

“If 200 British children went missing from a boarding school, it would be front page news with appeals. These children need protecting.

“We can reasonably say this is happening at all of the hotels housing unaccompanied children. It is a wide-scale problem.

“This is a bigger issue than just the Brighton hotel. Children are being trafficked and coercive control is being used.”

Gangs use TikTok to traffic youngsters

The majority of children who have been placed in the Brighton hotel are 16 and 17-year-old boys — but 13 of the missing are under 16.

Almost 90 per cent of the children are Albanians, with the remainder from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey.

Ms Haddad and her colleagues work in hotels where adults and children have been housed.

“The conditions in the hotels are bad, the food is horrible, I get complaints about the food on a daily basis from the people I support,” she said.

“A lot of people have scabies, the hotels are not glamorous and the residents are pretty much stuck there. They have no right to work or college until they have been here for six months.

“It is really affecting their mental health and causing depression. People who have suffered a traumatic past are being forced into this never-ending limbo.

Sasha Haddad, who has organised protests in Brighton, highlights the issue of missing child migrants. Photo: Sasha Haddad

“One person who works in a hotel for children has countless suicidal children pleading for help. The conditions they are being placed in are exacerbating their mental health.”

Due to safeguarding issues, The National is unable to name the children but charities searching for them have described the vulnerabilities they face.

“These children are not a homogenous group — some of them indeed lost their parents but many have family, parents and siblings who they were separated from as they were fleeing,” a charity source told The National.

The reasons children have to flee is because they are at risk and can no longer stay where they live. They often have to flee, leaving everything and everyone they know and love. The journeys children go through are dangerous, many are exploited and abused. They have seen and experienced horrible events.”

Many have already been trafficked even before arriving in the UK. Some gangs have been using TikTok to convince young people to make the crossings.

“When they arrive, they don’t have warm clothes or proper shoes,” said a report from activist group Reprieve. “They may be injured and often have scabies. They have been through terrifying experiences, and they hope that they will be safe here.

“A hotel is not the right place for children — they don’t know how long they will be there, and are scared and confused about what will happen next. They can’t get the medical and emotional help they need, and become a target for criminal gangs, who exploit and abuse them.”

Child asylum seekers fear they will be sent to Rwanda

Mr Sohege says it is very difficult for the police to find them, as criminals tell the children they will be deported.

In one case, a 16-year-old was tricked by an older man to leave one of the hotels, having been promised he would help reunite him with his sister in London. But after placing his trust in the man, he was taken to Leeds, Yorkshire, and locked in a cannabis farm for three months until he was discovered during a police raid.

“Albanian gangs do not deal with Channel crossings. They will have already trafficked the children with promises of a great life in their home countries and as soon as they get their grip on them, they organise with others to facilitate their crossing and pick them up when they arrive,” he said.

“It is happening to other nationalities too, including Vietnamese and Afghans, it is particularly vulnerable people from destabilised areas who can be more effectively targeted.

“When they arrive the traffickers tell them they will be sent back to Albania or to Rwanda, they are told the British government will not protect them. We need more support in frontline services so young people feel safe and know they will be cared for.”

Mr Sohege described the difficulties facing the police in finding the missing groups.

“It is very difficult for the police to investigate missing unaccompanied children,” he said.

“Many have no family or friendship groups or mobile phones they can be traced through. Usually, the only breakthroughs are by chance, such as through police raids on cannabis factories or warehouses.”

Three of the children from the Brighton hotel have been found through police drugs raids in Cambridgeshire, Gloucester and London.

In December, another minor was found working on a cannabis farm in Tottenham.

Manchester police raids have found some missing minors

Greater Manchester Police launched a crackdown on Albanian counterfeiting gangs, called Operation Vulcan, to hit criminals operating in the Cheetham Hill area of the city.

Raids carried out by the force resulted in some of the missing children being found.

The detective leading Operation Vulcan, Neil Blackwood, said the hotel network for unaccompanied asylum seekers is being used by organised gangs.

Operation Vulcan. Photo: Greater Manchester Police

“Children are taken into county lines, put to work by their own nationality selling drugs. They have come to our attention within weeks of arriving in the UK,” he told The Observer.

It has been co-ordinating with forces across the country to identify which areas the missing children have come from.

Some of the missing children from Kent have been discovered in London, West Yorkshire, Merseyside and Scotland.

Sussex Police, which covers the area where the Brighton hotel children went missing, has created a dedicated unit within its Missing Persons team to focus on finding them.

“Since the Home Office began housing asylum seekers in hotels in Brighton and Hove in July 2021, 137 unaccompanied children have been reported missing. Of these, 60 have been located and 76 remain under investigation,” said Sussex Police.

“We continue to work with the Home Office to help put prevention measures in place, including multi-agency safeguarding meetings, to ensure that when people are reported missing we have the best opportunity to locate them.”

Home Office claims hotel accommodation is a temporary measure

The Home Office has pledged to address the situation which it still maintains is “temporary”. It has blamed the rise in small boat crossings for the situation.

In its latest measure to halt the numbers, it has announced a lifetime ban on asylum for those arriving on boats.

But for now, there are mounting calls for a public inquiry into the missing children scandal.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, told The National the situation needs to be “urgently” addressed.

“Vulnerable children and young people who have come the UK to be safe are being left in legal limbo with the government failing in its statutory duty to ensure they are given a corporate, legal parent to look after them, like any other child in the care system,” he said.

“Councils, the police and ministers must urgently address what has become a child protection scandal to ensure every single young person seeking asylum matters and is kept safe.”

Calls for a public inquiry

In January, more than 100 charities wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to demand an end to the “unlawful and harmful” practice.

“There is no excuse for using these hotels,” Mr Sohege said, calling for an inquiry and for the urgent appointment of an independent anti-slavery commissioner.

“There needs to be an inquiry but it will take too much time, more immediately an independent anti-slavery commissioner needs to be appointed to provide independent oversight so problems can be spotted and fixed more rapidly.

“It needs to be out of Home Office control so the systems can be changed.”

Lawyers from the Good Law Project launched a set of legal challenges this week to seek the proper protection for unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum in the UK.

“We think that the Home Office’s decision to house these extremely vulnerable children in this way is unlawful and there is no option now but to use the law to challenge this unacceptable situation,” it said in a statement.

“So we have taken the initial step in a potential judicial review to hold the Home Office and the Department for Education to account for what has happened and challenge the ongoing unlawfulness of this situation.”

The Home Office said it was working urgently to relocate children to ensure they are safe.

“We are determined to stop the use of hotels for all minors,” it said in a statement.

“To achieve this goal, we are providing local authorities with £15,000 [$17,800] for every unaccompanied child they take into their care.”

Hundreds of people have held demonstrations to call for action

Back in Brighton, the uproar against the hotels is mounting.

Last week, a special council meeting was held to address the issue.

“We have never turned a blind eye to these issues and continued to house refugees as a City of Sanctuary,” Brighton and Hove City Council leader Phelim Mac Cafferty said.

“What we are dealing with is a national systemic issue. The current system is not fit for purpose.”

But many feel the resolve does not go far enough.

“The level of the debate was disappointing,” Mr Evans said.

“There was a lack of focus on preventative and protective actions. This felt like a lost opportunity and will do little or nothing to protect children.”

Whistleblowers encouraged to speak out

Ms Haddad hopes the Brighton protests will spread across the country.

“Our long-term campaign goal is that the UK government commits to housing all asylum seekers in good quality housing and not hotels in bad conditions,” she said.

“The missing children issue is happening all over the country but because Brighton had a whistleblower the spotlight came here. We hope our action will inspire whistleblowers to come forward from other hotels across the UK to highlight the reality of what is happening.”

Homes Not Hotels handed the council a petition this week, demanding the hotels be prevented from housing vulnerable children.

As police, officials and charities race to find the missing children, the Brighton community is determined to ensure they are not forgotten.

“This is a huge scandal for our city and the rest of the country,” Ms Haddad said.

“It has just been brushed under the carpet so far but Brighton has a reputation for being the birthplace of future national activism and we will continue to be their voices and bring change for every youngster.”

Updated: March 13, 2023, 2:22 PM