Routine housing of child asylum seekers in hotels is unlawful, UK High Court rules

More than 154 children remain missing from the hotels, court was told

A group of people are brought ashore in Dungeness, Kent, after being rescued in the Channel in September 2022. PA
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The “routine” housing of lone child asylum seekers in hotels is unlawful, the High Court has ruled.

Legal action was brought against the Home Office by the charity Every Child Protected Against Trafficking over the practice of housing unaccompanied youngsters long-term in hotels.

The organisation claimed the arrangements, which have been used for the past 18 months, are “not fit for purpose”.

Mr Justice Chamberlain said in a ruling on Thursday that the practice is unlawful, as the power to place children in hotels should be used for “very short periods in true emergency situations”.

“It cannot be used systematically or routinely in circumstances where it is intended, or functions in practice, as a substitute for local authority care,” he told the court in London.

“From December 2021 at the latest, the practice of accommodating children in hotels, outside local authority care, was both systematic and routine and had become an established part of the procedure for dealing with unaccompanied asylum seeking children,” the judge continued.

“From that point on, the Home Secretary’s provision of hotel accommodation for unaccompanied asylum seeking children exceeded the proper limits of her powers and was unlawful.”

Under UK immigration law, central and local governments are required to provide accommodation to all asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work while they await decisions on their cases.

That includes thousands of children who have arrived unaccompanied across the Channel in small boats in recent years, with the government's increasing use of interior ministry-run hotels widely reported.

The judge also found Kent County Council is acting unlawfully in failing to accommodate and look after lone children seeking asylum when notified by the Home Office.

“In ceasing to accept responsibility for some newly-arriving unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, while continuing to accept other children into its care, Kent County Council chose to treat some unaccompanied asylum-seeking children differently from and less favourably than other children, because of their status as asylum seekers,” Mr Justice Chamberlain said in his 55-page judgment.

“Ensuring the safety and welfare of children with no adult to look after them is among the most fundamental duties of any civilised state,” he also said.

During a hearing after the judgment was made public, Mr Justice Chamberlain said there was an “urgent” need for “negotiation” between the Home Office and Kent’s local authority.

“At the forefront of my mind are the interests of the children in Kent’s care,” he said.

Mr Justice Chamberlain said it would not be acceptable for this to be delayed due to a lack of people’s availability over the summer.

“If it means ministers have got to be interrupted on their holidays, then so be it,” he said.

Migrant children rescued in French waters – in pictures

The court previously heard that at the time of hearing the claims earlier this month, 154 children remained missing from the hotels, including a 12-year-old.

“These children have been lost and endangered here, in the United Kingdom,” the judge said.

“They are not children in care who have run away. They are children who, because of how they came to be here, never entered the care system in the first place and so were never ‘looked after’.”

The judgment was welcomed by the leader of Brighton and Hove City Council Bella Sankey.

“As a result of this policy, a dozen classrooms of children, including some of the most traumatised and vulnerable children in the world, have gone missing and, sickeningly for us, 50 children are still missing from the hotel used in Brighton and Hove,” she said.

“It remains a child protection scandal that so many of the most vulnerable children remain missing at risk of significant harm as a consequence of these unlawful actions by the Secretary of State and Kent County Council,” Patricia Durr, chief executive of the charity ECPAT, said following the ruling.

“The High Court has upheld that local authorities have a statutory duty to care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children,” a Home Office spokesperson said.

“We have always maintained that the best place for unaccompanied children to be accommodated is within a local authority.

“However, due to the unsustainable rise in illegal Channel crossings, the government has had no option but to accommodate young people in hotels on a temporary basis while placements with local authorities are urgently found.

“In light of today’s judgment, we will continue to work with Kent County Council and local authorities across the UK to ensure suitable local authority placements are provided for unaccompanied children, in line with their duties.”

Updated: July 27, 2023, 10:52 PM