The Observer view on Britain’s shameful failings on child refugees

<span>Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Unaccompanied children fleeing war, torture and chaos are surely one of the most vulnerable demographics in the world. Yet an Observer investigation has exposed how once these children reach the UK they can be treated with an appalling lack of care, to the extent that large numbers are being kidnapped in plain sight by criminal gangs. Today, we publish allegations by a whistleblower that the staff in one hotel accommodating some of these already traumatised children have subjected them to repeated emotional abuse.

Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove, has met some of the children being housed in a hotel in his constituency. He has described their vulnerability: one 15-year-old from Iran who had lost both of his parents travelled to the UK with a friend but was separated from him because he tested positive for Covid and was so anxious “his face was pinched and his legs were buckling”. The majority of unaccompanied children arriving in Britain come from countries with terrible records of conflict and human rights abuses: Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Many will be in immediate danger from the criminal gangs to whom they owe money for smuggling them into the country.

Yet the government has absolved itself of its ethical and legal responsibilities to these children. The Children Act 1989 places a legal duty on local authorities for the safeguarding and protection of all children in need in their local area, regardless of who they are or how they arrived in the UK. This applies to unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK, the vast majority of whom will also meet the threshold for being taken into the care of their local authority.

Children who have made the Channel crossing unaccompanied are therefore at least initially the responsibility of Kent county council. However, two and half years ago, Kent said it would cease fulfilling its legal responsibilities towards these children for four months because it no longer had capacity to care for them. It did so again in 2021. Since then, children have been held in short-term holding facilities in poor conditions with clear risks to their safety, for longer periods on average than adult asylum seekers. And the Home Office created a “temporary” solution of housing these children in hotels rather than short-term facilities until they can be transferred to other local authorities, which is still ongoing.

The government’s inaction has paved the way for more and more children to fall into the hands of criminal gangs

These children are in a no man’s land: there is no local authority whose care they fall under and so they are, unlawfully, not protected by the 1989 Children Act. There is no one with corporate parental responsibility for them, no one with the formal legal power to advocate on their behalf. They have been left to the residual care of the Home Office, probably the most dysfunctional department in Whitehall. While they are housed in Home Office hotels, no action is taken on their asylum applications; they are simply paused until another local authority is willing to assume responsibility for them under a voluntary scheme called the National Transfer Scheme, which has been widely criticised as underfunded.

A borders inspectorate report last year revealed disturbing gaps in their care. Despite nurses being onsite at the hotels, they did not have the authority to prescribe medication for the children, including basic pain relief, and there was no access to emergency equipment such as defibrillators or EpiPens. There was no mental health support, despite the high levels of trauma experienced by many of the young people, and their basic educational needs were going unmet. Some of the staff living in the hotels alongside vulnerable children had not even undergone basic safeguarding checks.

Reporting by the Observer’s Mark Townsend has revealed that these official reports are just the tip of the iceberg. Out of the 600 children who have passed through a single Brighton hotel in the past 18 months, 136 have been reported missing and 76 remain unaccounted for. Last week, the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, was forced to admit to parliament that across the six hotels the Home Office is using to accommodate children seeking asylum, 440 children out of 4,600 have gone missing, with 200 still unaccounted for. A whistleblower who worked at the Brighton hotel and child protection sources told the Observer how these vulnerable children are being abducted off the street by child trafficking gangs.

Related: Revealed: child migrants racially abused and threatened with violence at Home Office hotel

And today, another whistleblower tells this paper about the treatment of children at the hands of some of the staff in the Brighton hotel. They describe how they have been subjected to cruel levels of emotional abuse, with staff threatening to throw them out of a window, laughing about the prospect of them being trafficked, racially abusing them and detaining them in their rooms for days on end.

It is unthinkable that this has been allowed to go on so long, despite MPs like Peter Kyle having alerted the government to the growing problem. The government’s inaction has paved the way for more and more children to fall into the hands of criminal gangs. There is so much to criticise in the government’s approach to those seeking refuge in the UK. But its horrific treatment of a relatively small number of unaccompanied children fleeing war zones is a stain on the collective conscience of us all.

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