Placing unaccompanied children in hotels run by the Home Office is “unlawful”, according to a legal action launched after hundreds of youngsters living in them have gone missing.
Launched on Monday by the charity ECPAT UK, the legal action argues that the Home Office has “no authority” to place unaccompanied children in asylum hotels, from where scores have been kidnapped by gangs.
earlier this year the Observers revealed how dozens of asylum-seeking children were abducted by criminals from a single Home Office hotel in Brighton. In total, more than 400 unaccompanied children have gone missing from hotels run by the Home Office. Some are believed to have been trafficked; others, who disappeared from the south coast, have been found as far away as Scotland.
Of those who have disappeared, 154 are still missing according to a parliamentary debate last Thursday, with their whereabouts unknown despite police efforts to locate them.
ECPAT UK said it had repeatedly attempted to persuade ministers to end the “unsafe practice”.
Yet the Home Office has yet to commit to an exit strategy for housing the children, who have recently arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel in small boats.
The government has even doubled down on its position by seeking to legislate to grant the Home Office powers to accommodate unaccompanied children. Traditionally, local authorities have used their own powers to protect such children.
Patricia Durr, the chief executive of ECPAT UK, said: “This is a national child protection scandal that we cannot allow it to continue. As a small charity concerned with the rights of some of the most vulnerable children subject to the very worst crimes, we have been left with no choice.
“Children have been harmed, children are missing, and children have been exploited.”
The move comes after a family court ruled late on Friday that unaccompanied children should not be looked after by the Home Office and should be considered “children in need”.
A senior judge at the court ruled that children who arrive in the UK without parents or carers should receive the full protection of the Children Act 1989, which would ensure that their needs are identified and met by local authorities.
It is usual for local authorities to look after vulnerable children, learning on longstanding child protection norms. Yet since the summer of 2021, when Kent announced it could not cope with an influx of unaccompanied children, the Home Office has taken effective ownership – placing children in everyday hotels, which are essentially converted overnight into unregistered children’s homes.
ECPAT UK says that the Home Office continues to unlawfully accommodate unaccompanied children in hotels. The Home Office minister Robert Jenrick told parliament last week that there are currently no children in hotels run by the Home Office, though this could change.
Instructing the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, the charity’s legal action also challenges Kent county council’s “derogation of duties towards children in need”.
Two years ago, Kent county council said it was refusing to accept any more unaccompanied child migrants, after warning that its services were at breaking point.
Durr added: “This is the shocking but inevitable consequence of Kent county council abdicating their obligations with the sanction of the Home Office which itself is operating outside of the law. It is clear that the Home Office has no authority, power or expertise to accommodate vulnerable children.”
Friday’s family court victory was brought by another small charity – Article 39 – with the backing of the Good Law Project, after the Observers revealed whistleblower allegations that children were being kidnapped directly outside a Home Office hotel in Brighton and that police warnings had been ignored.
Article 39 wanted “urgent protection for this group of children through a wardship application in the family court”.
During an initial hearing in late March the Home Office reported that 66 children were still missing from the Brighton hotel. Friday’s judgment revealed that 23 children remained missing.
Carolyne Willow, director of Article 39, said: “This judgment has brought vital clarity to a wholly unacceptable situation where extremely vulnerable children have been treated as being in legal limbo. That was a fiction which unforgivably exposed children to serious harm.”
Figures revealed in the last week’s parliamentary debate on the issue revealed that 5,570 children have been accommodated in Home Office hotels so far.
A government spokesperson said: “We agree that a local authority is the right body to provide support to an unaccompanied child and we encourage all local authorities to care for children entering the UK. Due to the rise in dangerous small boat crossings, the government has had no alternative but to use hotels to give unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK a roof over their heads.
“The wellbeing of children and minors in our care is an absolute priority. Robust safeguarding and welfare measures are in place at all temporary hotels to ensure children are safe, secure and supported as we urgently seek placements with a local authority.”
Kent County Council declined to comment.