Small boats, Rwanda, the right to work, the Bibby Stockholm - the mismanagement of the UK’s asylum system has dominated the final months of the Tories’ last full year in power. But alongside these well-publicised crises, another is unfolding in plain sight - the wilful neglect and outright mistreatment of another, even more vulnerable population: children.
“Over the past two years, the government has made a series of decisions that have shown a dangerous disregard for the safety and wellbeing of children,” Lauren Starkey, an independent social worker specialising in the care of trafficked, asylum-seeking kids tells The Lead.
This is putting it mildly. It’s hard to imagine any other setting in which the fate of more than 150 missing children is dismissed with a shrug by the state.
On 29 November, Home Office civil servants were asked by Alison Thewliss, SNP MP for Glasgow Central, about the number of young people still missing from Home Office hotels.
“How many have you found?” she asked.
“I don’t know how many exactly,” was the answer.
The UK government revealed early in the year that 200 unaccompanied under 18s had “disappeared” from Home Office hotel accommodation. In June, the Home Office said that 154 children remained unaccounted for, and it seems they aren’t sure where any of these might be.
Laura Duran, Head of Policy at ECPAT UK - a leading children's rights organisation - tells us that although they cannot speculate on the current location of the children, “previous evidence shows some were trafficked to various areas across the UK.”
“It remains a child protection crisis with so many children never found,” Duran continues.
“They’ve done nothing to find them, and nothing to understand why they’ve gone in order stop further losses of children,” Lou Calvey, a former head of resettlement at Refugee Action and now an independent immigration specialist, tells The Lead. “They don’t want any scrutiny on it and it’s almost like they’re offended by being asked - they’ve dehumanised these children so comprehensively they can’t wrap their heads around anyone caring. People are treated worse than cattle, just shunted around from pillar to post, with no discernible care and concern - that extends to children also.”
“They don’t want any scrutiny on it and it’s almost like they’re offended by being asked.”
The figures of missing children could be higher still. "Appalling figures from the Home Office show that in the last two years, a staggering 442 unaccompanied children, some barely in their teens, disappeared from hotels under government watch,” says Marieke Widmann, Policy Advisor at The Children's Society. “Alarmingly, 166 of these children remain unaccounted for. These are children who may have fled to the UK seeking refuge from horrors like persecution, torture, even organ harvesting, only to find themselves failed by a system that's supposed to protect them.
Starkey recalls how dozens of safeguarding professionals and children’s rights organisations have argued over and over that hotels shouldn’t be used for unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
“We repeatedly warned them [the Home Office] that placing separated asylum-seeking children alone in hotels was an absolute disaster that put children directly in harm’s way,” she says. “But they ignored every warning.”
Even after the hundreds of children disappeared, Starkey says the Home Office “carried on” placing children in hotels, “even looking for ways to dismiss the vulnerability of the children themselves.”
“They have only shut down the hotels now, not because it’s the right thing to do to protect children, but because the High Court told them it’s unlawful,” she says. “There’s still no clear plan as to what the government is doing to find those children.”
The kids from the hotels that are closing are now meant to go into local authority care, but no clear plan has been presented as yet. "Either Kent should take them straight into their care, or arrangements should be made via the National Transfer Scheme for another local authority to take responsibility for each child in a timely, organised manner that avoids the need for them to go into hotels," she says.
As to mitigating the risk of further children disappearing, Calvey says there needs to be investment in children’s social care and specialist accommodation.
“Similarly to asylum services, this is dominated by private companies making frankly obscene profits from the care of children who aren’t able to be with families,” she says. “Local Authorities need long term investment in children’s care to rebuild the state infrastructure around this. No child should be in a hotel. No child should find exploitation more attractive and comforting than the care of the state.”
Submit to dangerous test or be considered as adult
Instead of investing in adequate care for asylum-seeking children, the government plans to invest resources to assess the age of asylum seekers posing as children.
On 27 November, the House of Lords gave its backing to plans to use X-rays and MRI scans to verify the age of migrants after having been approved by the House of Commons the previous week. Under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, the government could introduce regulations specifying scientific methods to be used to assess age. This might include measuring parts of a person’s body or analysing saliva and DNA.
"Children who refuse to undergo X-rays or MRIs will be threatened with being identified as over 18 by default under Section 52 of the Nationality and Borders Act."
The proposal, due to come into force in the new year, is the government’s attempt to clamp down on the alleged problem of ‘adults pretending to be children’ while seeking asylum and find out their ‘real’ age. However, the Home Office’s own data shows that only 1% of adult male asylum seekers pretend to be children when they arrive in the UK.
“They’re stoking a climate of disbelief around children in the hope more are classified as adults so they don’t have to find care places for them,” Calvey says.
Concerns have also been voiced about the issue of forced consent - children who refuse to undergo X-rays or MRIs will be threatened with being identified as over 18 by default under Section 52 of the Nationality and Borders Act.
Maddie Harris of Humans For Rights Network said the tests pose “serious and acute risk to children” and will “create immense fear” among them, potentially resulting in children leaving accommodation and care settings, forcing them into harmful exploitative situations due to fear of undergoing the procedures.
Charities and medical bodies have raised serious concerns that these methods, especially X-rays and MRIs, are not only inaccurate but potentially harmful.
“What we are doing is using instruments developed by science but the assessment is certainly not a scientific one,” Lord Winston, a professor and medical doctor, told the Lords at the end of November.
He suggested the tests might not account for lack of nutrition or growth deficiencies and raised concerns about the harmful impact of radiation from X-rays, including the risk of ionising radiation.
As a social worker, Starkey is most worried about the way the government “seems to be trying to bring the protection of children away from the independence of the social work role” by allowing scientific methods to take the age assessment responsibility away from social workers.
“Of course, a system needs to be in place to ensure that adults are not able to identify as children and therefore be placed in children’s environments,” Calvey says. “The very best way of ensuring this is to treat all people claiming asylum fairly, supportively and process their claim removing the incentive for someone over the age of 18 to be recorded as a child.”
Calvey notes the current, legal framework for age assessments – the Merton Compliance framework, which requires age to be assessed by a suitably experienced person, is a perfectly adequate tool already used to ethically and safely assess age.
In reality, while posing as a child is a risk, Calvey says it is a “relative rarity” and that the vast majority of people incorrectly age assessed are under 18 but placed in “wholly unsuitable adult environments such as barracks, sharing rooms with unknown strangers.”
“We know there are many more children in the adult asylum system that are at significant risk,” Calvey says. “Instead of supporting Local Authorities with the process of assessing those children properly so they can be placed in safer environments, the government wants to use technology that has been known to fail. This will lead to more cases of children placed at risk in adult environments. This is the government acting like snake oil salesmen - selling things they know to be quackery to reduce the numbers of children they need to support.”
Children are not exempt from asylum ban under Illegal Migration Act
Denied safe routes to get to the UK, children, just like adults, find other ways to get to the UK, likely falling prey to smugglers or traffickers. Figures from the Home Office released in August of this year showed that in the year ending June 2023, over 2,800 unaccompanied children crossed the Channel and applied for protection here.
“Without safe travel options, refugees are forced into the hands of ruthless smugglers who exploit the UK’s lack of safe routes, cramming men, women and children into dangerous boats to cross the Channel,” Kalkan says. “It’s staggering that so many children are forced into taking dangerous journeys as they have no other way to get here.”
Children won’t be exempt from the Illegal Migration Act, meaning they won’t get protection in the UK when arriving irregularly.
“Refugee children must be able to ask for protection in the UK, no matter how they arrive here,” said Kalkan.
As part of Brexit, the UK decided to leave the Dublin system, the process within the European Union for allocating which country is responsible for deciding asylum applications, at the end of 2020.
Within the Dublin system was the Dublin III Regulation which provided a legal route for reuniting separated asylum-seeking family members in the UK. With Brexit, the UK no longer upheld the Dublin III. Instead, the government designed the Dubs Amendment to ensure the government would continue to allow unaccompanied and separated refugee children in Europe the opportunity to be reunited with family members here in the UK after the Brexit process was completed.
Having previously agreed to accept the amendment into the Brexit Bill, after the election the government chose to change their mind and take it out.
“This Government has continued to shut down safe routes available for refugees,” Gunes Kalkan, Head of Campaigns at Safe Passage, tells The Lead. “The few routes that do currently exist are failing, like the UK’s own refugee family reunion rules which is very restricted for children and who they can reunite with as well as having very long waits to be brought to safety. It leaves unaccompanied children with no option but to turn to smugglers and take a dangerous journey across the Channel, and then be banned from ever getting protection here.”
Refuge Family Reunion is all that is left for family reunion under the UK’s Immigration Rules. It’s a restricted and complicated process, that nearly a third of the unaccompanied children working with Safe Passage have abandoned, instead choosing to make the dangerous journey to reach family in the UK.
“Alongside new routes, the government must urgently fix family reunion, so children don’t have to turn to smugglers and dangerous journeys to reach safety and family in the UK,” says Kalkan.
"The Illegal Migration Act strips away crucial protections for asylum-seeking children, including giving the Home Office powers to accommodate these children instead of local authorities,” adds Widman of The Children's Society. “The data shows what a profoundly misguided and dangerous move this would be. Nor should the government go through with plans which would block children from making asylum claims, remove them as soon as they turn 18 and allow their detention without restriction. These are not just numbers; they're children, each with a story, a dream, and a right to safety. It's high time we treat them as such."
The Home Office has been approached for comment but has not yet responded to our requests.