Call for inquiry after Observer investigation uncovers scale of trafficking by criminal gangs
Dozens of asylum-seeking children have been kidnapped by gangs from a Brighton hotel run by the Home Office in a pattern apparently being repeated across the south coast, an Observer investigation can reveal.
A whistleblower, who works for Home Office contractor Mitie, and child protection sources describe children being abducted off the street outside the hotel and bundled into cars.
“Children are literally being picked up from outside the building, disappearing and not being found. They’re being taken from the street by traffickers,” said the source.
It has also emerged that the Home Office was warned repeatedly by police that the vulnerable occupants of the hotel – asylum-seeking children who had recently arrived in the UK without parents or carers – would be targeted by criminal networks.
About 600 unaccompanied children have passed through the Sussex hotel in the past 18 months, with 136 reported missing. More than half of these – 79 – remain unaccounted for.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, described the revelation as “truly appalling and scandalous” and called on the government to reveal how many children had disappeared and what was being done to find them.
She added: “Suella Braverman [the home secretary] has failed to act on the repeated warnings she has been given about totally inadequate safeguards for children in their care.
“It is a total dereliction of duty for the Home Office to so badly fail to protect child safety or crack down on the dangerous gangs putting them in terrible risk. Ministers must urgently put new protection arrangements in place.”
The proportion of those taken by criminal elements is difficult to quantify, though a number of those missing will be safe, having absconded to reunite with friends or even family.
Home Office sources said it was “not true” that unaccompanied children were being kidnapped from their hotels, saying youngsters were free to leave its accommodation.
However, the Mitie whistleblower also described witnessing children being in effect trafficked from a similar hotel run by the Home Office in Hythe, Kent, estimating that 10% of its youngsters disappeared each week.
The child protection source said some of the children missing from the Brighton hotel may have been trafficked as far away as Manchester and Scotland. One case is under investigation by the Metropolitan police in London.
Data revealed in October showed 222 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were missing from hotels run by the Home Office. Ministers admitted that they had no idea of their whereabouts.
Meanwhile, it has also emerged that no new guidance for police has been issued for tracking down missing asylum-seeking children, with sources saying it remains in “development”.
New data released under the Freedom of Information Act shows that newly arrived unaccompanied children spend an average of 16.5 days in Home Office hotels before being transferred into council care around the country.
When asked to comment, Brighton and Hove city council, which traditionally cares for child asylum seekers when they arrive in the UK without parents or guardians, referred queries on criminals targeting children to the police. Sussex police said queries on criminals targeting the children should be addressed to the Home Office.
The Home Office said: “Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect all children, regardless of where they go missing from. In the concerning occasion when a child goes missing, they work closely with other local agencies, including the police, to urgently establish their whereabouts and ensure they are safe.
“We have robust safeguarding procedures in place to ensure all children in our care are as safe and supported as possible as we seek urgent placements with a local authority.”
Brighton and Hove city council added: “We have been actively involved when any child is reported missing and have worked with the police and other agencies to try to trace them.”
Catherine Hankinson, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for missing persons, said regular multi-agency meetings by police reviewed the response to every missing migrant child who had not been located.