Frightened, smuggled and abandoned—this is what happens to hundreds of unaccompanied child refugees in Britain. More than 4,600 children seeking asylum have been kept in six hotels since July 2021, when the Home Office began dumping them here.
But 200 are missing, with 13 of these under 16. Some 76 children are still missing from a hotel in Brighton. There are reports that some were snatched from the streets and dragged into cars. In total 137 unaccompanied children have been reported missing.
Local authorities are the “corporate parent” for children in care and foster care. But while in hotels, waiting to be put on the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) that houses them with local authorities, children slip through the Home Office’s net. The recent statistics paint a sickening picture. But it can be even darker when the Home Office disputes the ages of children and places them in hotels alongside adults.
Maddie Harris is the director of Humans for Rights Network, which works with unaccompanied children whose age is disputed. She explained that the reason children in the hotels go missing is that “they’re not provided with access to safeguarding”.
“There’s no interrogation of the risk and vulnerability from trafficking or being re-trafficked,” Maddie told Socialist Worker. “There’s little understanding about what is in the child’s best interests. Some go missing because they have friends and relatives in Britain and are reunited, but there’s exploitation and trafficking too.
“The risks of being under the control of smugglers or being exploited during their journey don’t just go away.”
In the hotels children wait for decisions and assessments on their ages, to be put on the NTS list or to be taken into local authority care. The wait can range from weeks to months.
For those who aren’t in the care of local authorities, it is difficult to access education. And in some hotels, children are told not to go outside. Maddie thinks there’s been “an increase in ghettoising people in camps and hotels”.
The Manston processing centre in Kent held over 4,000 refugees in a space for up to 1,600 without food, beds or wash facilities for weeks on end. One man died after being kept there.
“Children we’re working with are so traumatised by the journey and Manston comes up repeatedly—it’s one of their most horrific experiences,” said Maddie. “This just compounds and adds to their problems.”
Humans for Rights Network helped 512 children stuck in adult hotels just last year, where many children also go missing. “Children come into Dover and have an arbitrary decision made by border staff over their age within hours of arrival. They’re then treated as an adult and placed in adult accommodation.
“I have a client who disclosed they had been sexually assaulted,” Maddie added. “These hotels are run by private contractors and security guards have little training.
“Before Christmas we had children who ran away and were contacting us from other cities. ‘We can’t stay there any more, it’s not safe,’ they’d say. Being on the streets is better for them than being in the hotels.”
“We’re talking about a traumatised, unsupported population,” she explained. And in the hotels, a lot of violence is reported to be carried out by staff.
“One child was a witness to a guard beating up a man in a hotel. And another witnessed an attempted murder of a child by people outside the hotel,” Maddie said. “With all these things going on in the accommodation, of course there are children running away.”
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick claims there’s nowhere to put child refugees. But charities have accused him of lying. They say they’ve offered to help find spaces in non-local authority placements.
Private companies run more than 80 percent of children’s homes in England. There are also more than 43,000 fostering households.
Around 176 of the 200 missing children—88 percent—are Albanian. The Tories have been pushing a disgusting narrative that Albanian refugees are “fake” because Albania is a “safe country”.
It doesn’t matter whether they’re refugees or not. Everyone should have access to assistance, no matter where they’re from.
“Our prime minister has said he wants to round up all Albanians and remove them,” Maddie said. “So some may well feel they have no option but to disappear.”
The Tories have also announced they may start sending letters of intent to deport families with children to Rwanda. “The Rwanda plan does not apply to unaccompanied children, but the children don’t always know that,” Maddie said.
“I spent half of last week talking to children explaining this. But there’s no meaningful information given to them.”
A system is designed to brutalise and dehumanise migrants as invaders
In Europe the situation isn’t much better. “In France we know there are children living on the streets,” Maddie said. “The shared border is heavily controlled by smugglers.”
She explained that a lot of children don’t have the money to pay smugglers. “They end up very easily being targeted. We’ll see children closing lorry doors or being drawn into criminal networks to facilitate their journey.
“This is happening every day, everywhere. It’s what happens when there’s no safe route.”
Maddie blames the “horrific” situation on British and European borders. “Britain is financially responsible for so much—it’s pouring money into Frontex in Libya where there’s slavery and human trafficking, and France.
“These children are exposed to so many risks, but there doesn’t seem to be the will to access the knowledge about it and follow up.”
The misery from the suffering of refugees is the responsibility of our rulers. In 2021 at least 1,315 people died on the central Mediterranean crossing. Over 30 have died in the Channel—and this is just a tiny part of the picture.
The barbed wire on eastern Europe’s border, the brutality on France’s border and the Rwanda deportation scheme in Britain are parts of the same bloody system.
It is designed to repress, repel and demonise refugees. And although there is a desperate need for reforms to the current immigration regime, the horrors won’t stop with a few small changes.
The racism and the scapegoating towards children and adults will remain unless the whole system is overturned. Missing children, abandoned in a web of racist regulations and hostility, are just one example of how this system plays out.
Anti-racists have to fight to open the borders to all refugees and end the hostile environment directed at migrants.
‘Smugglers use government policy as a coercion technique’
After suffering unspeakable trauma and suffering on journeys to safety, children are disregarded when they arrive. Last year the Tories introduced the Nationality and Borders Act that criminalises smuggling—including those who steer boats. That means refugees on sinking dinghies can be prosecuted.
This is the case for 19-year-old Ibrahima Bah who was driving the boat that capsized when four died in the Channel in November. “Smugglers will tell the children, ‘You can steer the boat because you can’t be criminalised’,” Maddie said. “They twist and manipulate government policies to coerce them.
“Now we’re seeing the Rwanda plan as something used by smugglers and traffickers as a coercion technique. Children are told, ‘You’re at risk.’”
Yet the Tories claim their crackdown of Channel crossings and at the borders is to “put smugglers out of business”. “That’s bullshit,” Maddie thinks. “These policies only make it worse. If you want to shut down criminal gangs, then create safe routes.
“They’re putting people, including children, straight into the hands of criminal gangs, people smugglers and traffickers.”
The Tories are only interested in painting a narrative against refugees. They say some refugees aren’t “genuine” and that false age claims are pouring in to pit them against each other.
Despite the majority of claims being genuine, the only way to get support is to jump through hoops in the Tories’ system. It is designed to stop those who have a right to help from getting it.
Maddie says, “With children, there are more legal obligations. A convenient scenario for the Home Office is to make one of the children older, so it doesn’t have to take responsibility.
“They’re creating a two-tier system. Refugees are a tiny fraction of people in the world and how or why they come into Europe shouldn’t matter, everyone should get care.”
Maddie thinks the Home Office “should not have responsibility for children. It has no legal basis to become a corporate parent, and that’s proven by the risks taken when placing children in unsuitable hotels.
“The system has completely collapsed, it’s not fit for purpose. The Home Office has done this intentionally, it didn’t collapse on its own.”
Maddie warned that despite the work charities do, it’s not enough to keep children safe. “We’re contacted because our phone number is passed between children who explain we’ve helped them. But no child should only be accessing help just because they’ve found our number.
“It’s a plaster over a chasm.”
‘The awful treatment of teenagers here is another episode of abuse’
Hundreds of anti-racists in Brighton called a protest last week to stand in solidarity with child refugees. The rally, called by Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) and charity Care4Calais, demanded an end to home secretary Suella Braverman’s hostile environment.
Aidan, a volunteer for Care4Calais, said in a personal capacity, “The awful mistreatment of teenagers in Hove is appalling, but sadly yet another episode in a litany of maltreatment, abuse and tragedy faced by refugees. We need a fit for purpose policy that unconditionally welcomes all refugees and provides safe routes to Britain.
“Asylum seekers are living in limbo, waiting years for a decision and housed in inadequate, overcrowded and often inhuman and unlawful conditions. They deserve far better.”
SUTR activists are now preparing for a national trade conference with the TUC union federation this Saturday, 4 February—Fighting for Anti Racist Workplaces. Speakers include general secretaries of the NEU, PCS, FBU, Aslef and Bfawu unions.
SUTR has called national demonstrations on 18 March as part of an international day of action. Marches will take place in London, Glasgow and Cardiff to say refugees welcome, stop the Rwanda plan, black lives matter and no to racism, fascism and antisemitism.
Sign up to 4 February SUTR trade union conference at bit.ly/SUTRTUC23
For details of 18 March protests and transport go to bit.ly/SUTR18March