The number of unaccompanied refugee children who are missing after disappearing from hotels stands at 144, figures obtained by The National reveal.
The UK government has come under criticism after it emerged that about 400 lone refugee children, some as young as 12, had disappeared from hotels amid fears they had been lured away by criminal gangs. Some, it is believed, may be dead.
Housing lone refugee children in hotels was ruled unlawful in July after charity Every Child Protected Against Trafficking took legal action against Kent County Council.
Laura Duran, the charity's head of policy, advocacy and research, told The National the Home Office figures – obtained through a request under freedom of information laws – indicate a “huge child protection failure” is taking place.
It “really is a scandal that so many remain missing”, she added.
“Many of them might not speak English or English isn’t their first language so they are vulnerable to being exploited, being abused and other forms of significant harm,” she said.
“They maybe criminal exploited, they could sexually exploited, they could be facing sexual assault, they could be destitute. It really could amount to anything, even death.”
Ms Duran said she believes there is a lack of political will at the highest level to find the children.
A coalition of charities earlier this year wrote to Prime Minster Rishi Sunak requesting that resources be put into finding the children. He did not respond directly but instead left it to government lawyers to reply.
“What would be the outcome if, say, over 400 children went missing from a local authority, and 144 remain missing? If that not a national scandal – because the figures are so shocking,” Ms Duran said.
Earlier this year, The National was told that people-trafficking gangs have been using mobile phone trackers to find refugee children staying in British hotels and lure them away.
Kama Petruczenko, senior policy analyst at the Refugee Council, said that “vulnerable children have disappeared into the clutches of those who will exploit and abuse them”.
“The government has a clear legal duty to protect the children who have come to our country in search of safety, but far too many of them have been left alone in a complex and unsafe system, with no one to protect them,” she told The National.
“It’s vital that we take our duty to provide safe accommodation and protection to these children seriously.
“When children do go missing, we must see all agencies, including the police, councils and health services, take immediate steps to investigate and locate them and to review the protection arrangements of children in their care.”
A Home Office representative said: “The well-being of children and minors in our care is an absolute priority.
“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.”