Immigration minister Robert Jenrick announced on 24 January that 200 unaccompanied child asylum seekers are missing from UK hotels.
This prompted more than 100 charities to write an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak calling for an end to housing child asylum seekers in hotels, warning that children were at risk of exploitation and one charity calling it a “child protection scandal”.
During Prime Minister’s questions (PMQs) on 25 January, Mr Sunak said it’s “important” the use of hotels for unaccompanied child asylum seekers is ended.
But what is the government doing about the situation and who is legally responsible for the children’s welfare?
Here’s what we know so far.
How many child asylum seekers have gone missing?
In response to an urgent question in the House of Commons on 24 January, Mr Jenrick told MPs that of the 4,600 child asylum seekers without an adult who had arrived in the UK since July 2021 and who were accommodated in a hotel, 440 had gone missing and just over half had returned.
Two hundred remain missing, with 13 of these children being under 16 years of age and one being female.
Of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children still missing, 88% are Albanian nationals, with the remaining 12% from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey.
The government said it was working with the police and local authorities to find the missing children.
The Home Office said that when any child goes missing protocol is mobilised, alongside the police and local authorities, in order to establish their whereabouts.
It follows the MARS (Missing After Reasonable Steps) protocol, which is widely used across children’s homes and supported accommodation for minors.
None of the 200 missing children have, as yet, been found.
A Home Office spokesperson told FactCheck: “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.”
What is the government doing to protect unaccompanied child asylum seekers?
According to the Home Office, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are supported by team leaders and support workers who are on site 24 hours a day, with further care provided in hotels by teams of social workers and nurses.
All children also receive a welfare interview on their arrival at accommodation, including questions designed to identify potential indicators of trafficking or safeguarding issues.
The movements of under-18s in and out of hotels are monitored and recorded, and the children are accompanied by support workers when attending organised activities and social excursions off-site.
But, the Home Office noted that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children staying in hotels are not detained and are free to leave the accommodation, which they may choose to do for numerous reasons, including visiting family.
The Home Office told FactCheck: “The wellbeing of children and minors in our care is an absolute priority. 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. “
In an open letter coordinated by ECPAT UK (formerly known as End Child Prostitution and Trafficking) and the Refugee Council, charities including the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, Action for Children, The Children’s Society and National Children’s Bureau, have called for the Home Office to stop accommodating unaccompanied children in hotels.
The letter read: “We request the end to this practice immediately with a commitment to an end date after which these practices will not be revived and an urgent independent inquiry given these significant matters of public concern following the reported failures to protect vulnerable children from harm.”
The charities are also calling for children to be cared for by local authority children’s social care.
The Home Office said local authorities have a statutory duty to protect all children, regardless of where they go missing from. This can be from home or from a care setting as a looked-after child.
“We are determined to stop the use of hotels for all minors. To achieve this goal, we are providing local authorities with £15,000 for every unaccompanied child they take into their care.”
There have been numerous reports that the children have been trafficked by criminal gangs, with Labour’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, accusing ministers in the Commons on 24 January of a “dereliction of duty” and claiming there was “a criminal network involved” in taking children away from their accommodation.
However, in response to an urgent question on safeguarding unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the House of Lords on Monday (23 January), minister Lord Murray said it was wrong to make generalisations about the reasons for the children going missing.