Hundreds of children asylum seekers have disappeared since the UK government began housing minors in hotels due to pressure on the country’s asylum seeker accommodation system, UK Immigration Secretary Robert Jenrick told lawmakers on Tuesday in Parliament, amid calls for an inquiry into the matter.
Jenrick said on Tuesday that around 200 children have gone missing since July 2021. “Of the 4,600 unaccompanied children who have been housed in hotels since July 2021, there have been 440 cases of disappearance and 200 children are still missing” , did he declare.
According to government data, around 13 of the 200 missing children are under the age of 16 and one is a girl. The majority of the missing, 88%, are Albanian nationals, and the remaining 12% are from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey.
Jenrick blamed the problem on an increase in migrant boat crossings across the Channel to the UK, which left the government with ‘no alternative’ but to use ‘specialty hotels’ to accommodate the minors from July 2021.
Although the contractual use of hotels was considered as a temporary solution, there were still four in operation in October with more than 200 rooms reserved for migrant children, according to a report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and of immigration.
UK charities and migrant rights groups have long complained about poor conditions in the country’s overwhelmed and underfunded asylum system.
The number of asylum claims processed in the UK has plummeted in recent years, leaving people in limbo for months and years – trapped in processing facilities or temporary hotels and unable to work – and feeding a insoluble debate on the borders of Great Britain.
The disappearance of migrant children was first reported in British media on Saturday, when The Observer newspaper reported that ‘dozens’ of asylum-seeking children had been abducted by ‘gangs’ from a hotel run by the UK Home Office in Brighton, southern England.
Calls have since grown for an urgent investigation into the case, with the opposition Labor Party, human rights organization the Refugee Council, and local authorities demanding urgent action.
The Home Office called the information false and in a statement to CNN, a Home Office spokesperson said: ‘The welfare of the children in our care is a top priority.
The spokesperson added that they have ‘robust backup procedures’ in place and ‘when a child goes missing, local authorities work closely with agencies, including the police, to urgently determine where they are found”.
While the UK government does not have the power to detain unaccompanied minors, who are free to leave hotels, Jenrick defended the UK Home Office’s protective practices saying that records are kept and monitored on children leaving and returning to hotels and that support workers are on hand to accompany children offsite on social activities and excursions.
“Many of those who have disappeared are then found and located,” Jenrick told parliament.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper of the opposition Labor Party blamed human traffickers in her response to Parliament saying ‘kids are literally being picked up from outside the building, disappearing and are not found and are taken from the streets by traffickers.
Cooper said “urgent and serious action” is needed to crack down on gangs to keep children and young people safe.
“We know from Greater Manchester Police that they have issued warnings that asylum hotels and children’s homes are being targeted by organized criminals. And in this case, there is a tendency here that gangs know where to pick up children, often probably because they trafficked them here in the first place,” she added. “There is a criminal network involved. The government completely fails to stop them.
On Monday, UK charity Refugee Action said it was “outrageous that children who have come to this country asking for safety are being put at risk. The ultimate responsibility lies with the Home Secretary and his decision to run an asylum system based not on compassion, but on hostility,” they added.
UK charity The Refugee Council tweeted that it was “deeply concerned about the practice of placing separated children in Home Office accommodation outside the legal provisions, putting them at risk of harm, more than 200 of them having disappeared”.