Alarms began ringing among local politicians from the moment in July 2021 that the first group of teenage asylum seekers was dropped off at a Brighton hotel on England’s south coast from which dozens have since disappeared.
Brighton and Hove council, which in normal circumstances would have been responsible for their care, said it received no prior warning of their arrival from the Home Office. After harrowing journeys across Europe and the sea some of the children were in severe distress. Covid restrictions complicated things further.
“It’s hard to explain in words what I saw,” said Labour’s Peter Kyle, the local MP for Hove.
Kyle is among those who from day one have been seeking answers from the government after visiting the hotel which, in an unrelated twist, is owned by a company whose directors include children of notorious property magnate and ex-convict Nicholas Van Hoogstraten.
The furore over Home Office handling of unaccompanied minors among migrants arriving by sea from France has been limited until now. That changed this week after reports, first carried in the Observer newspaper, that hundreds of child asylum seekers had disappeared from the hotel in Brighton and others like it, potentially at the behest of criminal gangs.
Not for the first time, the government finds itself on the back foot over its handling of migration, accused by more than 100 charities of being in breach of its obligations to safeguard children, forced to admit in parliament that many have gone missing and at pains to counter a portrayal of wider chaos in the asylum system.
Six hotels along England’s south coast were initially commissioned as a temporary Home Office measure in 2021 to accommodate children seeking asylum. This was part of a national transfer scheme introduced when reception centres in Kent became overwhelmed by the number of migrants arriving in small boats.
But the charities, in a letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, said it was no longer possible “to justify the use of hotels as being ‘temporary”.
Reports of disappearances from them are not new. They were flagged last October in a report by the independent border watchdog, and earlier freedom of information requests by Ecpat, the children’s rights organisation. But sinister tales from Brighton have galvanised government critics.
Sussex Police confirmed that of 137 unaccompanied asylum seekers aged under 18 reported missing from the hotel in Brighton, 76 have yet to be found.
In parliament, Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, acknowledged that of 4,600 such minors seeking asylum who have been accommodated in hotels since July 2021, 440 had at some point disappeared. Of these 200 are still unaccounted for, 13 of them under 16.
The charities contend that these teenagers’ care is outside the government’s obligations under the 1989 Children’s Act and thus made them vulnerable to the criminal gangs suspected of involvement in disappearance cases.
Hannah Allbrooke, chair of the children, young people and skills committee at Brighton council, said more than 1,000 refugee children had passed through the city under the Home Office transfer scheme. The Home Office, she said, had regularly conceded that the council, which would usually have legal responsibility for taking unaccompanied minors into care, did not in this case.
“Vulnerable children and young people who have come to the UK to be safe are being left in legal limbo with government failing in its statutory duty to ensure they are given a corporate, legal parent to look after them,” said Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council charity.
Kyle said safeguarding measures at the Brighton hotel were inadequate, and teenagers there were left in the dark as to their fate.
One Iranian boy he met had lost both his parents back home. On arrival in Brighton he had been separated from the friend, who had tested positive for Covid, with whom he had journeyed with from Iran.
“He was in a state of such anxiety his face was pinched and his legs were buckling. He didn’t know where his friend had gone,” he said.
This fits the wider picture of uncertainty painted by non-governmental organisation workers monitoring the children.
Ellen Tansey, safeguarding manager at the Refugee Council, said the children in the Brighton hotel, as in others she visited, appeared to have no designated social worker and none of the usual access to services. They were mentally affected by the haphazard way in which some among them were moved swiftly into care while others were stuck in the hotel for more than a month, she said.
This state of uncertainty made them more open to exploitation, she said: “You can appreciate if someone turns up and says to a child without any knowledge of how the UK asylum and child protection systems work, ‘you could be deported, or I could drive you to London and give you a job in a car wash’, even though it’s a risk, they might take it,” she said.
In one case last year, when a bystander had reported two boys being driven off from outside the Brighton hotel, Sussex Police intercepted the vehicle on the motorway. Two men were arrested and are under investigation for human trafficking.
There has been widespread speculation that children like them who have gone missing, more than 80 per cent of whom are Albanian according to the Home Office, have been drafted into the criminal underworld.
But Maddie Harris, who runs the NGO Humans for Rights network, and has worked with hundreds of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, said it was misleading to portray this as “random kidnapping”.
“It’s children coerced, exploited and trafficked,” she said, adding that some of them would already have had contact with trafficking networks to get to the UK.
“The children going missing from hotels is really due to a lack of support being provided to understand the needs and individual risks that relate to each of them,” she said.
The Home Office said that as part of efforts to phase out the use of the hotels, it was offering £15,000 to local authorities taking children seeking asylum into care.
“Robust safeguarding procedures are in place to ensure all children and minors are safe and supported as we seek urgent placements with a local authority,” it said, adding: “Any child or minor going missing is extremely serious, and we work around the clock with the police and local authorities to urgently locate them and ensure they are safe”.