UK shows no urgency to deal with 'disgrace' of missing asylum seeker children, says MP

Fears raised that the children have been lured by gangs into crime or slavery

Emergency workers with children brought in to Dungeness, Kent, following a small boat incident in the Channel. Getty Images
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The UK government is showing no urgency to find lone asylum seeker children who have disappeared from hotels, an MP has told The National.

Alison Thewliss, who sits on the Home Affairs committee which has released a report on human trafficking, said it was an “absolute disgrace” that children put into hotels on their own have vanished.

Hundreds of the children were earlier this year reported missing from hotels, and figures obtained by The National reveal that 144 of them have not been found amid fears they have been lured by criminal gangs.

The accommodation of lone refugee children in hotels has formed part of a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into human trafficking.

The practice of routinely sending unaccompanied asylum seeker children to hotels was ruled unlawful earlier this year after a legal challenge by the charity Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT). It has called for a separate inquiry into what it describes as a “scandal”.

Ms Thewliss said using hotels for lone refugee children showed a “real disregard for the responsibilities and real lack of care for these young people”.

“I don't feel there's any urgency to this at all,” the Scottish National Party MP said.

“I was really struck that we had a session with the then home secretary, Suella Braverman, earlier this year and she didn’t have any answers about this.”

Similarly when the top official at the Home Officer appeared at the committee he had “no figures, no update about what was happening and to say this is how they were pursuing the cases of these children”, said Ms Thewliss.

The MP said that at least immigration minister Tom Pursglove had figures when he recently appeared before the committee, though the 154 number he quoted differed from those given to the The National and those Ms Thewliss has been given.

“It doesn't surprise me that the figures don't tally, because it is again symptomatic of the issue,” she said.

“A number of the cohort that’s gone missing are now 18, and you would still want to know if these young people are being exploited or being brought into modern slavery, but they’re just not paying that level of attention.”

Ms Thewliss contrasted the UK's approach to that of the authorities in Belgium and the Netherlands, which members of the committee visited.

“It couldn't be more different in terms of the attitudes of officials,” she explained.

“We talked to some really quite senior officials in Belgian government about this as well. And they said if this happened there, they would be absolutely over it and having all kinds of serious reviews and doing all kinds of things.

“The very thought of the question they took quite seriously. They were really quite worried that those kinds of things could happen and I thought ‘that’s just not the same here’.”

In their report, the cross-party committee of MPs say the government “needs to show greater urgency in securing more appropriate accommodation that is suitable for the needs of children, notwithstanding the need to keep families together”.

Every child who goes missing from home or care should be considered as a potential victim of trafficking, they said.

The committee has told the Home Office to update members “with its progress in finding these children by the end of this year, and we expect to receive regular updates thereafter until the problem is resolved”.

Its report details how it heard evidence that at one point unaccompanied asylum seeker children as young as 10 were “placed in these hotels with no access to legal or mental health support”.

Committee chairwoman Diana Johnson said while immigration minister Mr Pursglove was adamant that the government and the Home Office took this issue extremely seriously “it is self-evident that progress so far has been inadequate”.

“Efforts to locate the missing children must be redoubled and lessons learnt to sure these failings are not repeated,” said the Labour MP.

ECPAT’s chief executive Patricia Durr told The National there were now no unaccompanied children in Home Office hotels as a result of its legal action.

But she added: “The number of children who went missing from those hotels is hugely concerning with many still missing.”

ECPAT also supports the recommendation that every child missing from home or care is considered a potential victim of trafficking, even if they are subsequently found safe.

“Our view remains that this is a child protection scandal warranting its own inquiry and we will continue to press for it alongside all measures to find the missing children,” she said.

Updated: December 23, 2023, 7:00 AM