Hundreds of child asylum seekers have gone missing since the British government started housing minors in hotels due to a strain on the country’s asylum accommodation system, British Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick told lawmakers in parliament on Tuesday, amid calls for an investigation into the matter.
“Out of the 4,600 unaccompanied children that have been accommodated in hotels since July 2021, there have been 440 missing occurrences and 200 children still remain missing,” he said.
Approximately 13 of the 200 missing children are under the age of 16, and one is female according to government data. 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 through the English Channel to the United Kingdom which left the government “no alternative” than to use “specialist hotels” to accommodate minors as of July 2021.
Although the contracted use of hotels was envisioned as a temporary solution, there were still four in operation as of October with over 200 rooms designated to child migrants, according to a report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.
British charities and migrant rights groups have long complained about the bad conditions in the country’s overwhelmed and underfunded asylum system.
The number of asylum claims processed in the UK has collapsed in recent years, leaving people in limbo for months and years – trapped in processing facilities or temporary hotels and unable to work – and fueling an intractable debate about Britain’s borders.
The missing migrant children was first reported in British media on Saturday, when the newspaper The Observer reported that “dozens” of asylum-seeking children were kidnapped by “gangs” from a hotel run by the UK Home Office in Brighton, southern England.
Calls have since been mounting for an urgent investigation into the matter, with the the opposition Labor Party, human rights organization the Refugee Council, as well as local authorities demanding urgent action.
The Home Office has called those reports untrue and in a statement to CNN a Home Office spokesperson said: “The wellbeing of children in our care is an absolute priority.”
The spokesperson added that they had “robust safeguarding procedures” in place and ”when a child goes missing, local authorities work closely with agencies, including the police, to urgently establish their whereabouts.”
While the British government is without the power to detain unaccompanied minors, who are free to leave the hotels, Jenrick defended the UK Home Office’s safeguarding practices saying that records are kept and monitored of children leaving and returning to the hotels and that support workers are on hand to accompany children off site on activities and social excursions.
“Many of those who have gone missing are subsequently traced and located,” Jenrick told parliament.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, from the opposition Labor Party, blamed human traffickers in her response to parliament saying “children are literally being picked up from outside the building, disappearing and not being found. They are being taken from the street 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, they’ve warned asylum hotels and children’s homes are being targeted by organized criminals. And in this case, there is a pattern here that gangs know where to come to get the children, often likely because they trafficked them here in the first place,” she added. “There is a criminal network involved. The government is completely failing to stop them.”
On Monday, UK charity Refugee Action said that it is “scandalous that children who have come to this country to ask for safety are being put in harm’s way. Ultimate responsibility lies with the Home Secretary, and her decision to run an asylum system based not on compassion, but hostility,” they added.
UK charity the Refugee Council tweeted that they are “deeply concerned by the practice of placing separated children in Home Office accommodation, outside of legal provisions, putting them at risk of harm with over 200 of them having gone missing.”