Home Office accused of “dereliction of duty” after 200 child asylum seekers went missing from its hotels amid calls to stop the use of hotels to accommodate them. People continue to risk their lives to reach the UK despite failing deterrence efforts and harsh weather conditions. New hostile environment policies are introduced to target migrants.

Dozens of asylum-seeking children have been kidnapped by gangs from a Brighton hotel run by the Home Office in a repeated pattern, an Observer investigation reveals. A whistleblower describes children being abducted off the street outside the hotel and bundled into cars, saying: “Children are literally being picked up from outside the building, disappearing and not being found. They’re being taken from the street by traffickers”. Despite being warned by police and people working at Home Office, Home Secretary Suella Braverman failed to act on these warnings and ensure protection for child asylum seekers. A whistleblower said: “Most of the children disappear into county lines,”, referring to the predatory gangs who run drugs in the country. Another source added that criminals had been quick to exploit the Home Office’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Africa as a recruiting tool. Meanwhile, the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said about the “truly appalling and scandalous” disappearance of child asylum seekers: “It is a total dereliction of duty for the Home Office to so badly fail to protect child safety or crackdown on the dangerous gangs putting them in terrible risk. Ministers must urgently put new protection arrangements in place.” Responding to the investigation and critiques, the Home Office denied the news at first claiming that the wellbeing of children in its care is an “absolute priority”. However, Home Office minister Simon Murray admitted later that 200 asylum-seeking children including one girl and at least 13 children under the age of 16 went missing from hotels run by Home Office while refusing the fact that they were kidnapped. He said 88% of the 200 children – 176 – were of Albanian origin, and added that the government hoped to phase out the use of hotels for children “as soon as we can”. The Home Office was accused by ministers of “dereliction of duty” while children’s rights organisation ECPAT UK and ECRE member, the Refugee Council gathered more than 100 signatures under an open letter to Braverman condemning the government’s “failures to protect vulnerable children from harm” and urging it to “stop accommodating separated children in hotels with no further delays”. Further, Lou Calvey, UK Refugee & Asylum Specialist tweeted: “The fact that children in the care of the government are being bundled into cars and lost to exploitation & this is not the biggest story today tells you everything about racism & anti-migrant sentiment in our politics, our government, our media & society”.

Meanwhile, people continue to cross the channel aiming to reach the UK despite freezing temperatures and deterrence efforts. On 18 January, 106 people in two different boats made the crossing to the UK while 442 people including one baby arrived in the UK in 10 different dinghies on 22 January, bringing the total number of channel arrivals in 2023 to 592 people so far. Moreover, the French coastguard prevented a further 53 asylum seekers from reaching the UK on the same day. Meanwhile, reportedly, sources in the Border Force say that as many as 80,000 could make the dangerous journey in 2023 – up from 45,000 in 2022. Yet, the Home Office is still hopeful that they will manage to “stop the small boats” and prevent people the right to seek asylum. A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “’Under the new Small Boats Operational Command, and by working closely with our French partners and other agencies, we will go further to tackle the gangs, deter illegal migration and disrupt the business model of people smugglers”. Meanwhile, Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said the government still hopes to restart flights to Rwanda “as soon as possible”, but added it was “right” to wait until court appeals have concluded. His statements come out at a time in which a new survey found that nearly half of the asylum seekers facing removal from the UK to Rwanda are married and from countries where more than 80% had their refugee status recognised by the UK. The survey findings contradict claims made by former home secretary Priti Patel, who launched the scheme to deter people crossing the Channel in small boats, saying they were “not genuine asylum seekers” and were “elbowing out the women and children, who are at risk and fleeing persecution”. Yet, the Home Office is considering sending families with children to Rwanda. Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said: “There’s not necessarily a bar to families being removed to Rwanda”.

The UK’s current government led by PM Rishi Sunak renews its commitment to “thoroughly discredited” hostile environment policies to target migrants. Among these policies, a new task force, aimed at launching a crackdown on “illegal immigration”, includes blocking access to banking, rented housing, healthcare, education, driving licences and public funds for those without immigration status. Immigration experts say that it seems the government hasn’t withdrawn lessons from the unresolved Windrush scandal which resulted in wrongful arrest, denial of rights and deportations of tens of people. Jacqueline McKenzie, a representative of the victims of the Windrush scandal, said: “The hostile environment never really went away but, for outward appearances, the language was changed. But it is distressing nevertheless to hear of a formal resumption of the ideas”. However, the immigration minister Robert Jenrick, who is leading the task force, justified the introduction of the force saying: “Illegal working causes untold harm to communities, cheating honest workers of employment, putting vulnerable people at risk and defrauding the public purse. Our immigration enforcement teams are working to bring those violating our laws to justice. It’s our priority to crack down on this crime and empower law enforcement to remove illegal migrants.” As a result, 21 trade unions have condemned the Government’s attempts to “pit’ workers against each other” and allow further exploitation of migrant workers and undocumented people by returning to hostile environment policies. The unions pledged to “resist this government’s hostility and racism” and called for a “separation between immigration enforcement and labour inspectorates”. Moreover, Home Office decided to implement the use of X-ray age checks to “identify adults who fabricate their age” despite being warned about its harm on the mental health of child asylum seekers and unreliability. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, a former leader of the labour party, wrote in an op-ed challenging the Tories’ “politics of hatred” stating: “We need an immigration system grounded in compassion, dignity and care. One that brings an end to the poverty, environmental collapse and wars that are displacing people around the world. One that stops spewing the hateful rhetoric of “invasions” and instead says loudly: refugees are welcome here”.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.