200 unaccompanied children still missing after disappearing from Home Office hotels

Over 4,000 children have been placed in hotels since 2021, with 440 missing episodes during that time, says minister, as campaigners and peers raise trafficking concerns

Asylum-seeking child
Photo posed by model (Jan H Andersen/Adobe Stock)

Two hundred unaccompanied asylum-seeking children remain missing after disappearing from Home Office-commissioned hotels, a minister has admitted.

Junior immigration minister Lord Murray revealed the figure in response to a question in the House of Lords today.

He said that over 4,600 unaccompanied children had been placed in hotels since July 2021, when the Home Office started using them because of the inability of local authorities – particularly Kent council – to accommodate increasing numbers of asylum-seeking children.

During that time there had been 440 episodes of children going missing from hotels, with 200 still unaccounted for, said Murray. Of these, all but one were boys and 13 were under 16 – reflecting the demographics of the unaccompanied population. 

Murray said that children were spending an average of 18.23 days in hotels.

BASW ‘deeply concerned’

After the issue was reported by The Observer at the weekend, the British Association of Social Workers said it was “deeply concerned” about the risks facing the missing children.

“Children seeking asylum are key targets for traffickers and abusers because they often do not have close family who will look for them,” said BASW. “The children will often be used to transport drugs or take part in other forms of criminal activity.”

The Refugee Council, which supports unaccompanied children following their arrival in the country, said home secretary Suella Braverman needed to launch an urgent inquiry into “a deeply shocking story into some of the most vulnerable people in our UK”.

‘Anxiety about lack of safeguards’

Several peers also raised concerns about the risk of children being trafficked.

Labour’s Baroness Armstrong, a former social worker and social work lecturer, warned Murray that the policy may be increasing these risks.

“Speaking to people who have been to visit the hotels, they have come away being very anxious about the lack of ability of anyone around the hotels or outside the hotels to safeguard, to know about safeguarding and, as the minister has just said, they cannot detain children,” she said.

“They know that predators are around. And we know that predators are one step ahead, in terms of child trafficking and, indeed, of child sexual abuse, than most of the organisations who are around to safeguard.

“This is a huge issue. It is a shaming issue. And I hope that the government take it very seriously and work very hard to make sure trafficking, as we now know it, is not being fuelled by the policy around children unaccompanied in hotels.”

Safety and wellbeing the ‘primary concern’

In response, Murray said the safety and wellbeing of the children were the Home Office’s primary concern, that children’s movements in and out of hotels were monitored and they were accompanied by support workers in attending off-site activities or when vulnerabilities were identified.

“When a young person goes missing, the missing person protocol is followed and led by our directly engaged social workers,” he added.

Murray said there were “many reasons why children go missing and there was no basis to make generalisations as to their reasoning”.

Charities have long raised concerns about the lack of safeguards for unaccompanied children placed in hotels. They are not treated as being looked after and so do not have a care plan, an independent reviewing officer or an allocated social worker, though Home Office-contracted social workers are based in the hotels.

‘Inconsistent safeguarding and welfare outcomes’

An inspection into the use of hotels by the chief inspector of borders and immigration last year found: “The lack of a coherent design including establishing the expected standards for the operation’s delivery undermined the quality of Home Office oversight.

“Concurrently, the failure to effectively identify and assess the needs of these young people, and to ensure that the operation to house them could meet these needs, led to inconsistent safeguarding and welfare outcomes.”

Since December 2021, the Home Office has mandated all local authorities to take a share of unaccompanied children through its national transfer scheme (NTS), to relieve pressures on port authorities such as Kent and eliminate the use of hotels.

In August last year, the department started incentivising councils to take children into their care from hotels, with a payment of £6,000 over three months for authorities that took in a child within five days of a request to do so. This was on top of the £143 daily payment for looking after a child transferred through the NTS.

Record numbers transferred out of hotels

In July to September 2022, a record 693 children were transferred out of Home Office facilities, including hotels, to the care of local authorities, and last month, the Home Office increased the payment to local authorities to £15,000.

This will be available to any council that takes in an unaccompanied child from a hotel or Kent council’s reception and safe care service before the end of next month.

However, while Murray said that the Home Office’s intention was to end the use of hotels for unaccompanied children as soon as possible, he could not put a date on when this would be.

Lack of placements

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has previously warned that there is a dearth of suitable placements for children to move to, a position echoed by BASW in its statement on the issue.

“There are often severe problems for local authorities in sourcing sufficient appropriate accommodation at short notice,” said BASW. “The drivers for this are complex and include government under-investment in local authority children’s services, increasing demand and the failure of the government to respond constructively to the ever- worsening refugee crisis.

Speaking the day after Murray in the House of Commons, immigration minister Robert Jenrick admitted that the legal status of children in hotels – in particular whether they were the responsibility of the Home Office or the local authority in which the hotel is based – was a grey area.

“There is a challenge around the legal status of a local authority with respect to these hotels,” he said. “Our objective, of course, is to reduce demand for these hotels as quickly as possible so that young people are simply in this accommodation for a very short period of time whilst we get them into local authorities where they can be cared for properly in accordance with the law.”

In response to a question from Liberal Democrat peer Lord Scriven asking that the Home Office taking on corporate parenting responsibility for children in hotels, before their transfer to a local authority, Murray said: “I will take that suggestion back to the department.”


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