Asylum-seeking children have gone missing from Home Office hotels more than 400 times since July 2021, a minister has admitted.
Robert Jenrick, minister for immigration, told the Commons on Tuesday that cases were being treated in “exactly the same way as any young person who goes missing”, but MPs raised concerns that “nothing is happening” to find those being kidnapped by gangs.
More than 4,600 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have been housed in hotels since July 2021, but 440 have gone missing during that time, Mr Jenrick revealed. Some 200 children are still unaccounted for – 13 of which are under the age of 16.
About 88 per cent of the 200 still missing – 176 – are of Albanian origin, raising questions about the role of organised crime groups in their disappearance.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper criticised the government for “completely failing to stop” the criminals responsible. “We need urgent and serious action to crack down on these gangs and to keep children and young people safe,” she said.
Analysis of government data by The Independent shows that the number of Albanian children in the UK who are thought to be victims of modern slavery has risen by 250 per cent in two years.
In 2020, 163 children were referred to the National Referral Mechanism – Britain’s framework for identifying victims. That figure rose to 404 in 2022, in the year to September.
The true figure is set to be higher as the number of referrals in winter 2022 has not been published.
One charity said the increase was down to better reporting but added that Home Office hotels were putting Albanian children at particular risk of being trafficked.
Philip Ishola, CEO of charity Love146, said: “There are multiple reasons why Albanians are so vulnerable to trafficking, and none of them are resolved by attacks we are seeing against them in policy and government rhetoric.”
He added that there was a “lack of specialist support” for these children and limited training for the staff in hotels on how to identify victims of trafficking.
“This leaves them vulnerable to being re-trafficked from the very people who they are meant to be protected from,” Mr Ishola added.
The figures come after a whistleblower working for a Home Office contractor told The Observer how youngsters were being abducted off the street outside one Brighton hotel and being bundled into cars.
Patricia Durr, CEO of anti-trafficking charity ECPAT UK, said: “It is a scandal that a government department such as the Home Office, which has no legal basis to care for and accommodate children, continues to put children in harm’s way and must urgently commit to ending this practice immediately.”
Speaking in the Commons, Labour MP Peter Kyle said his community in Hove was only given a couple of hours’ notice that 96 unaccompanied children were going to be placed in a hotel.
“In the community I represent, a child has gone missing, then five went missing, then a dozen went missing, then 50 went missing and currently today 76 are missing and nothing is happening,” he said.
Mr Jenrick promised to visit the hotel with Mr Kyle to address his concerns. The immigration minister also told the Commons that similar problems were occurring with children’s homes.
He said: “The numbers of children going missing from these settings are not dissimilar from the numbers going missing from local authority children’s homes.”