Catholic leaders have joined political leaders and charities in speaking out against the ‘horrifying’ failure of more than 200 asylum-seeking children “missing” from Home Office hotels, and causing a child protection scandal.
There have been urgent calls for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to end the practice of housing young refugees and an independent inquiry into how the situation arose.
Dr Sophie Cartwright from Catholic refugee charity JRS UK condemned the ‘dangerous’ situation. “Hundreds of children have gone and remain missing from asylum hotels,” Dr Cartwright told the Universe.
“They are at risk of exploitation and serious harm. This is truly horrifying, It is likely that they have been trafficked.”
The news came after Catholic peer Lord Alton, speaking in the House of Lords on Tuesday, asked for clarification about the ‘deplorable’ situation, specifically ‘the fate and the plight of those missing children.’
“What were their countries of origin? What safeguarding is now in place at that hotel?” he asked. Lord Murray of Blidworth said that two hundred of the children remain missing, with 88% Albanian nationals and 13 under the age of 16.
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick confirmed in the House of Commons on Tuesday that more than 4,600 unaccompanied children have been accommodated in hotels since July 2021, and that “200 children remain missing, 13 of whom are under 16 years of age and only one of whom is female”.
Dr Sophie Cartwright condemned the ‘dangerous’ policy of accommodating unaccompanied children in hotels.
“It represents an utter failure to care for or protect children,” she said.
“It is compelling evidence that the practice of placing lone asylum-seeking children in hotels is dangerous. And it follows multiple warnings about this, which have gone unheeded. Change is needed immediately.”
When the issue was raised in the Commons, Rishi Sunak said that ‘local authorities have a duty to protect children’ and said that the use of hotels should end. Tory MP Jonathan Gullis was heard to say: ‘well, they shouldn’t have come here illegally’ during the debate, leading Catholic political commentator Joshua Nichol to blast the Government response.
“That there are some politicians blaming those children instead of reacting with horror and empathy is a sad indictment of the Government’s loose relationship with compassion when it comes to immigration,” Mr Nichol told the Universe. “It seems the Government would rather pass on the other side than stop and listen to those in need.”
Rebecca Stevenson, a trafficking policy expert at Christian charity CARE, also underlined the risks and dangers of trafficking for the unaccompanied children.
“The Home Office has a duty of care that they are failing to fulfill in the case of these especially vulnerable children,” she said. “The risks posed by traffickers cannot be overstated. Children could end up in criminal exploitation, selling drugs, or be forced into sexual exploitation.”
JRS UK has now signed an open letter to the PM. The letter, co-ordinated by ECPAT UK and the Refugee Council and signed by more than 100 organisations, urges Rishi Sunak to end the practice of housing young refugees who have been separated from their families in Home Office hotels, and instead place them with specialist local authority teams who can protect them.
The letter states: “There is no legal basis for placing children in Home Office hotel accommodation, and almost two years into the operation of the scheme – which is both unlawful and harmful – it is no longer possible to justify the use of hotels as being ‘temporary’.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, described the loss of dozens of refugees as “a child protection scandal”.
“The Government has a very clear legal duty to protect them but is failing to do so with the equivalent of several classrooms of children seemingly having disappeared into the clutches of those who will exploit and abuse them,” he said.
“This is a child protection scandal that councils, the police and ministers must urgently address to ensure every single separated child matters and is kept safe.”
Patricia Durr, chief executive of ECPAT UK, called for “an urgent commitment to end this practice immediately”.