Around 200 unaccompanied minors — mostly Albanian teenagers — are missing from hotels they were housed in as they awaited decisions on asylum claims, leading to outrage among rights advocates calling for better protections and to demands from lawmakers to fix the issue.
The missing children are among the tens of thousands of people who have arrived in Britain on small boats after crossing the English Channel in recent years. Most of the young asylum seekers are housed in hotels as they await their fate by the Home Office, which says they are free to come and go as they please despite their ages.
Some officials, citing conversations with the local authorities, say they believe that many of the missing have been picked up by criminal gangs and exploited, raising major questions about government failures. The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment but has confirmed that at least 200 children seeking asylum have gone missing from hotels. Opposition lawmakers have called the entire program for housing minors into question.
An investigation published this week by The Observer newspaper about one hotel in the Sussex area of southern England revealed that of the approximately 600 unaccompanied children under the age of 18 who have passed through its doors in the past 18 months, 136 had been reported missing, and 79 remain unaccounted for. Last year, data revealed by the government showed that more than 222 unaccompanied children seeking asylum were missing from hotels across Britain run by the Home Office.
The government has responded to the widespread criticism in a series of statements this week. Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, said that of the 4,600 child asylum seekers who had arrived in Britain since 2021, some 440 had gone missing and only half had been accounted for. Local police are tasked with looking for those who are missing but have only been successful in locating some.
Of the 200 children who remained missing, most are older teenagers, but 13 are under 16 and one is female. The majority — 88 percent — are Albanian nationals.
Last year, of the around 40,000 people making the dangerous channel crossing, about 13,000 were Albanians, and the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to crack down on these arrivals and reject their asylum claims.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Jenrick said that while the reports were concerning, he had seen no evidence that children were being abducted at the hotels.
“We have no power to detain unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in these settings, and we know some do go missing,” he said, acknowledging that the asylum seekers were free to leave the hotels.
Peter Kyle, an opposition Labour lawmaker for Hove, the area where the hotel detailed in the Observer report was located, slammed government inaction during an impassioned statement on Tuesday in Parliament.
“The uncomfortable truth for us is that if one child who was related to one of us in this room went missing, the world would stop,” he said. “But in the community I represent, a child has gone missing, then five went missing then a dozen went missing, then 50 went missing,” he said, adding that more than 70 were missing “and nothing is happening.”
Yvette Cooper, who heads immigration policy for the Labour Party, speaking on the “BBC Breakfast” show on Thursday morning, said the reports of missing asylum seekers showed that the Conservative government had failed to take serious action to address the issue.
“There is a pattern here but nobody is properly investigating,” she said. “There is no targeted unit going after them and saying, ‘this is a pattern,’ where young people are being trafficked across the channel and then into cannabis farms — or into prostitution in some of the worst cases — but into organized crimes, being picked up from outside these hotels.”
Hotels have been used to house asylum seekers in Britain for years amid a shortage of other temporary housing. In July 2021, unaccompanied minors arriving in Britain began being housed in hotels as well. Britain’s Home Office is responsible for this housing, but it partners with private companies to provide the accommodation and also contracts out the management of the program to another company.
As the time that people wait for their asylum applications to be decided had steadily increased in recent years, the number of people who linger in these hotels has also risen, and rights groups have long criticized the conditions inside these facilities.
The groups had specifically warned that housing unaccompanied children in hotels failed to safeguard some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers and said that they had demanded changes to the way the government processes the claims for asylum.
More than 100 charities in an open letter called for the government to take action on the missing minors, demanding that the Home Office stop housing children in “unsafe hotels, where they could be targeted by criminals.”
Enver Solomon, the chief of the Refugee Council, one of the organizations behind the letter, said in a statement that the government had “a very clear legal duty” to protect these children, but that it “is failing to do so with the equivalent of several classrooms of children seemingly having disappeared into the clutches of those who will exploit and abuse them.”
“We know from our work that children who have experienced unimaginable horror and upheaval coming to our country in search of safety are highly traumatized and vulnerable,” he said, adding: “This is a child protection scandal that councils the police and ministers must urgently address to ensure every single separated child matters and is kept safe.”