A 12-year-old refugee is still missing months after disappearing from a UK hotel and may have been lured away by a criminal gang.
The child, who arrived in Britain alone, is among a group of 447 young migrants first reported as having gone missing from hotels back in April, prompting a charity to say it fears “the worst might have happened”.
Those missing from hotels across the country also include 11 children aged 14 and 15.
Details of the child's disappearance emerged as part of legal action brought against Kent County Council by charity Every Child Protected Against Trafficking. The case saw a High Court judge rule the routine use of hotels to house lone migrant children was unlawful.
In the latest hearing on Monday, judge Sir Martin Chamberlain ordered Kent and the Home Office to work together to find appropriate accommodation for lone refugees. He was concerned they would blame each other over the issue, leading to an “impasse”, he said.
The judge has said 154 of the 447 refugee children remain missing and that neither “Kent CC nor the Home Secretary [Suella Braverman] knows where these children are, or whether they are safe or well”.
A Kent County Council representative told The National on Tuesday that 31 children who had been staying in hotels in the county are still missing, but that it had no knowledge of the 12-year-old.
Many of the other children the judge was referring to were not actually in the care of the council at the time they disappeared and had been placed in hotels outside its jurisdiction, the representative said.
The Home Office said data on the number of missing migrant children isn’t routinely published and would not say if it knew whether the child was safe as it doesn't comment in individual cases.
Ecpat chief executive Patricia Durr said she was “very concerned about what may have happened to those children”.
“Until we know exactly, we have to consider the worst might have happened, though we hope for the best,” she told The National.
Ms Durr said the charity believes that some of those children may have been trafficked into or within the UK.
“Some of them have been trafficked onwards in the UK,” she said.
“Until we find them, there has to be an urgency about their care. It’s unimaginable to arrive in another country by dangerous means and a lot of them have no idea where they are.
“Children are relying on adults to protect them and some of those adults are looking to exploit them. They need the very best of our protection and they’ve been badly failed.”
Kent County Council is itself bringing a case against the Home Secretary over the burden it faces in having to deal with migrant children, as the area in the UK where all small boats arrive. Brighton's council is bringing similar action.
Kent argues that it is struggling to meet the needs of newly arrived migrant children, as well as vulnerable young people in the county.
Over the past four weeks, it says, 489 newly arrived unaccompanied children have been referred to its children's services team, more than most other UK councils face in a year.
More than 21,000 migrants have arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel so far this year, the latest figures show.
On Sunday, 113 people made the journey on two boats, according to Home Office data.
Lured by gangs
Of the children who have gone missing, most disappeared within 72 hours of arrival, according to data provided to parliament presented to the High Court.
“There is evidence that some have been persuaded to join gangs seeking to exploit them for criminal purposes,” said Sir Martin. “These children have been lost and endangered here, in the UK.”
Earlier this year, The National was told people-trafficking gangs have been using mobile phone trackers to find refugee children staying in UK hotels and lure them away.
Due to the increase in small boat crossings, the government has “no alternative” but to urgently use hotels to house unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, a Home Office representative said.
“The well-being of children and minors in our care is an absolute priority and there is 24/7 security at every hotel used to accommodate them,” the representative said.
“When a child goes missing, a multi-agency missing persons protocol is mobilised, alongside the police and local authorities, to establish their whereabouts and ensure they are safe.”