Around 200 unaccompanied minors mostly Albanian teenagers have disappeared from hotels where they were staying while awaiting a decision on their British asylum applications. The situation has sparked outrage from human rights defenders, who are calling for better protections and for parliamentarians to resolve the issue.
The missing minors are among tens of thousands of people who have arrived in Britain in recent years, crossing the English Channel in small boats. Most young asylum seekers are accommodated in hotels while awaiting the Interior Ministry’s decision. The ministry says they are free to come and go despite their age.
Citing talks with local officials, some government officials say they believe many of the missing were recruited by criminal gangs, raising serious questions about the government’s failures. The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but confirmed the disappearance of at least 200 minors who had applied for asylum and were staying in hotels. Opposition MPs are questioning the entire housing scheme for minors.
An investigation of a hotel in the Sussex region of southern England, published this week by The Observer newspaper, found that of around 600 unaccompanied under18s who passed through its doors in the past 18 months, 136 were reported missing , while 79 are still there Unknown. Data released by the government last year showed that more than 222 unaccompanied children who had applied for asylum were missing from Interior Ministry hotels across the country.
The government responded to the widespread criticism in a series of statements released this week. Robert Jenrick, the Immigration Secretary, said that of the 4,600 child asylum seekers who have arrived in the UK since 2021, around 440 have disappeared and only half have been traced. Local police are tasked with finding the missing but have been able to locate only a few of them.
Of the 200 missing minors, most are older teenagers, but 13 are under 16 and one is a girl. The majority 88% are Albanians.
Of the approximately 40,000 people who managed the dangerous crossing of the English Channel last year, 13,000 were Albanians. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has vowed to crack down on this movement and reject asylum claims.
Speaking to Parliament on Tuesday, Jenrick found the reports worrying but said he had seen no evidence of teenagers being kidnapped from hotels.
“We do not have the power to detain unaccompanied minors who seek asylum and find themselves in these places,” he said, acknowledging that asylum seekers are free to leave hotels. “We know that some of them are disappearing.”
In a heated speech to Parliament, Labor MP Peter Kyle, representing Hove, the area where the hotel cited in the Observer article is located, slammed the government’s inaction.
“The inconvenient truth for us is that if a child or a teenager from any of our families disappeared into this room, the world would stand still,” he said. “But in the community I represent, one teenager is missing, then five are missing, then 10 are missing, then 60 are missing.” According to him, more than 70 have disappeared and “nothing is happening”.
Yvette Cooper, the Labor Party’s director of immigration policy, told the BBC breakfast program on Thursday morning that information about missing asylum seekers showed the Conservative government had failed to take any serious action to resolve the problem.
“There’s a pattern here, but nobody’s really examining it,” she said. “There are no dedicated police looking for these young people and saying there is a pattern here where young people are trafficked from outside the country and then taken to cannabis plantations or, in some of the worst cases, into prostitution, but consistently for organized crime. You will be picked up from these hotels.”
Hotels have been used to house asylum seekers in the UK for years due to the lack of temporary accommodation. In July 2021, unaccompanied minors arriving in the country also began to be accommodated in hotels. The Home Office is responsible for housing, but works with private companies to provide housing and outsources program management to another company.
The waiting times for the processing of asylum applications have increased steadily in recent years, and at the same time the number of people accommodated in these hotels has increased. Human rights groups have criticized the conditions in these facilities.
The groups have specifically warned that housing unaccompanied minors in hotels leaves some of the most vulnerable minors unprotected. They are calling for changes in the way the government handles asylum applications.
In an open letter, more than 100 charities called on the government to take action on missing minors and urged the Home Office to stop putting children and young people “in unsecured hotels where they can become a target for criminals.”
Enver Solomon, director of the Refugee Council, one of the organizations responsible for the open letter, said in a statement that the government has a clear legal duty to protect these teenagers, but that “it is not doing it. The equivalent of several classrooms full of children seems to have disappeared into the clutches of those who would exploit and abuse them.”
“We know from our work that children who have experienced unimaginable horror and upheaval and come to our country for security reasons are highly traumatized and vulnerable,” he said. “This is a minor protection scandal. Councilors, police and ministers must take urgent action to ensure every unaccompanied child is respected and protected.”
Translated by Clara Allain